Is an Englishman's castle getting a bit less secure?

Coalition reforms include a proposal to privatise the Land Registry which guarantees ownership of our homes.

The coalition plans to part or fully privatise the Land Registry to raise money. But not only could the move add to the costs when you buy or sell your home, it could leave you with a massive gap in protection if there is a mistake in the future.

The Land Registry is an official body that safeguards the ownership of billions of pounds worth of property. At present, if it makes any mistakes about ownership, the Government promises full compensation to anyone adversely affected. But experts are concerned that no private firm could offer the same "guarantee to title".

Last week, the Government published the Public Bodies (Reform) Bill, which deals with abolishing, merging and reforming public bodies and quangos. The Land Registry, a government department established in 1862, is specifically mentioned in the Bill. Meanwhile the Ministry of Justice is undertaking a feasibility study into future private-sector investment in the Land Registry and plans to report back in the New Year. Full privatisation is also an option.

However, there are doubts as to whether private ownership of the body, which holds more than 22 million records of title of land in England and Wales, would result in any benefit to the consumer. The current system allows the public and professionals to have access to a wide range of property-related information, either for free or for modest amounts (see the panel on the right). David Parton, a solicitor for Access Legal from Shoosmiths, is concerned by talk of privatisation.

"The Land Registry is a not-for-profit organisation," he says. "It is inconceivable to imagine that a private company would not seek to make a greater return on its investment, leading to an increase in product and service prices."

He is also worried by the creation of a private monopoly. "Unless the Government considered breaking up the Land Registry, enabling a number of competitors to hold regional control [similar to rail franchises], it is difficult to imagine how homeowners could benefit from what would be a monopoly supply," he believes. "If the service was broken up into regions, these would then have to come up for renewal by tender, creating less certainty among conveyancers and the public as to who they are ordering their services from, usage by the consumer being extremely infrequent."

Similarly, Paul Hunt, the managing director of Phoebus, whose software is used by many mortgage lenders throughout the house-purchasing process, opposes the privatisation of any of the Government's data-collection agencies such as the Land Registry. "I admire its ability to collect data," he says. "As a commercial enterprise, the agency would lose some of its commitment to keeping a national record of Britain's housing stock. If that commitment is forced on it by its articles of association, it will be less competitive than its commercial peers, meaning it would lose out to them. Savings might be made in the short term, but corners will soon be cut in an effort to keep up with rivals. That will not benefit homeowners."

Mr Hunt also argues that any asset sale carried out now would not realise the sort of value the Government and taxpayer might expect. "Don't be fooled by the promise of hard cash," he adds. "I'm not convinced privatisations generate good value for the taxpayer. I am reminded of the privatisation of DERA [the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency] – now QinetiQ – which made a lot of people involved in its purchase a great deal of money at the taxpayers' expense."

Over the past couple of years, the Land Registry has made a concerted effort to reduce costs. It has cut its number of regional offices from 17 to 14, sold its Lincoln's Inn Fields headquarters in the capital to the London School of Economics for £37.5m, while more than 1,800 staff have left in the past two years. It also plans to save nearly £500m during the next 10 years. Supporters of privatisation tend to claim it improves efficiency and drives down costs. However, many professional users of the Land Registry believe it already does a good job.

Julian Sampson, a partner at Wright & Wright solicitors, doubts that change would benefit homeowners. "Whatever the [Land Registry] consultation chooses, it will be concerning to see any form of control change," he says. "The Land Registry has been one of the few self-sustaining organisations in the UK, and in recent months has made a concerted drive to market some of its facilities for commercial use. Other countries have privately run registration systems but frequently this has been driven by the lack of government expertise in mapping or ancillary systems – this is simply not the case here."

David Parton, of Access Legal, agrees that the organisation performs well. "It could continue its journey to become more customer-centric [for] the businesses it supports but generally speaking, its fees and service are already very good," he says. Mr Parton cannot see how privatisation could improve the conveyancing process, adding: "At best, the change would be neutral; at worst, recalling other government outsourcing projects, it could lead to increases in cost and delay."

Last year, the television presenter Sarah Beeny set up the website Tepilo.com with the aim of improving the home-buying and selling experience by helping consumers to avoid using estate agents. She is extremely sceptical that Land Registry privatisation would speed up the process.

"I don't necessarily think the Land Registry holds things up; what does hold things up is the conveyancing process," she says. "Fundamentally, the privatisation of such incredibly important data is risky in itself. It's the sort of data everybody wants and I'm not convinced it should be handed over."

David Parton also believes other Land Registry initiatives which benefit the consumer, but don't necessarily make money, could suffer if it was sold off.

"The Land Registry continues to make strides to combat property fraud and as a single public entity [is] well placed to engage with other stakeholders such as the police and Law Society to drive this forward," he says. "We are concerned that private-sector interests would be less focused on these initiatives or find engagement more difficult. They would likely be more concerned with profit motives." However, advocates of privatisation are confident these concerns can be overcome.

Sir Bryan Carsberg, president of the E-Homebuying Forum, argues that a sensible regulatory framework is all that is necessary. His organisation comprises a number of firms involved in the process of property sales and purchases, and many of them could be interested in fulfilling some of the Land Registry's current functions.

"The first thing would be to make sure important basic services that the Land Registry provides would continue so there would have to be a requirement to do that," he says. "Because it would be a monopoly service, there would have to be some sort of price control. And you need some control on quality of service too, because if you privatise a company and control its prices and not its quality of service, it is sometimes tempted to sacrifice quality of service in order to increase its profits."

However, the greatest concern raised by conveyancers is whether a private firm would be in the position to offer the same guarantees to title that the Land Registry does. Julian Sampson from Wright & Wright doubts how feasible this would be if run on a commercial basis. And it could result in long, protracted disputes about property ownership.

"The fundamental benefit from having a government-run system is the tenet that the consumer has a guarantee to title," he says. "If a private organisation took this forward, such a guarantee – if offered – would surely have to be tempered by insurance. Would we feel secure in our homes as a result?"

All you need to know about your land

The Land Registry registers title to land in England and Wales, records dealings with registered land (for example, sales and mortgages), and, most importantly, guarantees title to registered estates and interests in land.

Members of the public can download a title register from the Land Registry website for £4. That will enable them to establish who owns a property, what price was paid for it, and other stated information for property transactions after April 2000. It also registers any rights of way or restrictions noted on the register.

For the same amount, anyone can download a title plan defining a property. For £6.50, anyone can download an instant Flood Risk Indicator result showing the probability of flood for any registered property. This is produced with data supplied by the Environment Agency.

The Land Registry says its house-price index is the most accurate and independent index of its kind: it is the only index based on repeat sales and includes figures at national, regional, county and London borough levels.

Users can also generate lists of average house prices in any area of England and Wales for any range of months since January 1995. A price index for the area can be created and any two areas can be compared. Homebuyers can also use the Land Registry to research whether houses in their local area have been, or are likely to be, affected by subsidence.

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

    £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

    £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

    Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

    £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?