Land wars loom over UK Domesday II

Gerrard Winstanley office at
Tue Apr 10 17:24:37 BST 2007

Guardian readers will have missed this important Easter Monday story - 
serves you right ;-)
see also 'biggest estates' sction below

Who owns Britain? 
Biggest landowners agree to reveal scale of holdings 
By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor

Published: 09 April 2007 

A complete picture of who owns modern Britain is to be created as part 
of the biggest survey of land ownership since William the Conqueror 
commissioned the Domesday Book nearly a thousand years ago. 

But the task is enormous as 40 per cent of land in England and Wales 
has not been registered by its owners. More than half of all rural 
land and rural buildings are unregistered. 

Under the ambitious scheme sponsored by the Government, some of the 
country's oldest and most secretive families are to reveal the full 
scale of their private estates. The Queen and the Prince of Wales are 
among the biggest landowners who are co-operating with the Land 
Registry's attempt to plot every acre of land in England and Wales. 

English aristocratic families, including those of the Duke of Norfolk 
and the Duke of Bedford, who between them own 70,000 acres in the Home 
Counties, are also believed to have given details of their land 

Ministers have given officers for the Land Registry permission to 
consult on tightening the rules for compulsory registration, which 
they hope will lead to all land in England and Wales being registered. 

Land that has not been sold or mortgaged does not have to be 
registered and so many landowners whose property has not changed hands 
for a hundred years have been able to keep their ownership secret. 

Since the time of William the Conqueror there have been various 
attempts to write a full account of the ownership of Britain. But it 
was not until the 19th century that the state began to take a serious 
interest in collating the details of the ownership of property. 

Despite the introduction of a series of new registration laws, 
millions of titles to land have escaped legal registration - much of 
this property is owned by the aristocracy and those families who were 
once referred to as the landed gentry. 

The Land Registry, a government agency, intends to finish the job 
started by William the Conqueror. By adopting a combination of 
compulsory and voluntary registration systems, the Land Registry hopes 
to avoid having to implement a fully mandatory scheme to force all 
landowners to register their titles and their legal interests. 

Peter Collis, the chief land registrar of England and Wales, said he 
believes up to four million land titles remain unregistered. "We have 
managed to increase registration by 12 per cent [in the past five 
years] and so are reaching our targets. But it may be that we can't 
persuade some landowners of the benefits of registration. Then we have 
to ask what should we do in that situation." 

Mr Collis said the registry had taken legal advice about bringing in 
legislation to force all landowners to register their land. But he 
said: " It would be difficult to see how you could make this 
human-rights compliant, especially if the sanction would be the 
confiscation of the land from the owner." 

The new proposals would only extend compulsory registration to cases 
in which trustees of either land or property were newly appointed. 

Mr Collis said the registry had successfully persuaded some of 
Britain's biggest landowners, including the National Trust, the Church 
of England, some Oxbridge colleges, the Forestry Commission and the 
Ministry of Defence to surrender details of their land. Nevertheless, 
it is thought there is a stubborn rump of refusnik landowners who may 
find it difficult to prove they have title to property or believe the 
land is subject to a competing claim from another family member. They 
will want to avoid public registration. Other landowners, particularly 
very private celebrities or aristocrats, may not want to give details 
of their properties and land which would be made available on a public 

The register not only reveals the owner of the land but also shows 
details of registered mortgages and other financial burdens, covenants 
and easements which benefit or adversely affect the property. When 
Tony and Cherie Blair bought their £3.6m home in Connaught Square, 
London, two years ago, details of their mortgage were only made 
available through inquiries to the Land Registry. 

But Mr Collis says landowners need to weigh up the perceived threat to 
privacy or a possible challenge to title against the greater 
advantages of registration. "Once the land is registered, it means the 
title is guaranteed and the land is legally protected. Having all land 
registered will bring a comprehensive database to the property market 
that benefits everyone." 

Now officers working for the registry have begun targeting groups of 
unregistered landowners by offering them incentives to encourage 
voluntary registration. Those registering land for the first time are 
being given a 25 per cent discount on fees. 

While most of urban Britain has been registered, countryside ownership 
remains largely unmapped. Without a comprehensive database of land 
ownership, the Land Registry will be unable to support its online 
search service, which it is planning to roll out across the country. 

The Land Registry in England and Wales is the world's largest property 
database, helping to underpin the economy by guaranteeing ownership of 
many billions of pounds worth of property. As the government 
department responsible for maintaining the Land Register for England 
and Wales, its mission is to provide the world's best service for 
guaranteeing ownership of land and facilitating property transactions. 

The biggest estates 


The current Duke of Norfolk is His Grace Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th 
Duke of Norfolk, who succeeded his father, Miles 
Stapleton-Fitzalan-Howard, 17th Duke of Norfolk, in 2002. These 
Catholic estates run to 16,000 acres mostly around Arundel Castle and 
are the largest in Sussex. The Duke owns a further 30,000 acres 
outside of Sussex. They have never been documented. A spokeswoman for 
the Duke said that he was co-operating with the Land Registry but was 
unable to say how much work had been done in registering the land. 


The Duchy of Lancaster traces its origins back to 1265, when King 
Henry lll made a grant of land to his son Edmund. Valued at around 
£341m, the estate is held in trust for the sovereign of the day in his 
or her role as Duke of Lancaster. Its 18,700 hectares across England 
and Wales range from the Savoy Estate in London to the Goathland 
Estate in Yorkshire and include urban developments, historic 
buildings, farmland and areas of natural beauty. The Duchy expects to 
register all the land within the next two years. Completed 
registration includes the Salwick Estate and the Myerscough Estate (1,
100 hectares). Vyrner Speakman, register development manager at Land 
Registry's Lancashire office, has worked with the Duchy of Lancaster 
for several years. "I had suggested a method of dealing with 
encroaching registrations on the tidal creeks to the Duchy and they 
were very keen to explore it," she says. "They were also receptive to 
the idea that registration would better protect their interests." 


Durham Cathedral and its holdings are the latest properties to be 
mapped under the registration programme. The dean and chapter own 2,
470 acres across the diocese, between the Tees and Tyne rivers, 
including the prime cathedral site on Durham's central peninsula. 

Although ownership has remained largely unchallenged since the 
building of the cathedral more than 900 years ago, the dean and 
chapter has decided to register with the Land Registry. The chapter 
land agent, Jon Williams, said: "Durham Cathedral has owned property 
for hundreds of years. While we don't have any doubt about the 
ownership of the land, this is making it watertight and ensuring its 
availability for future transactions, not that the dean and chapter is 
preparing any particular sale." 


The Duchy of Cornwall's 54,764 hectares are spread across 23 counties, 
mainly in the south-west of England. Created in 1337 by Edward III for 
his son and heir, Edward the Black Prince, the Duchy provides a 
private income for the Prince of Wales (last year £14.1m). Tax is paid 
on a voluntary basis. Its assets are currently valued at around £561m. 
The voluntary registration of the estate has been under way since 2003 
and is more than half completed. Dartmoor was fully registered in 
summer 2006, by which time the Isles of Scilly were almost complete. 
The Duchy of Cornwall declined to say how much of the estates had been 
registered or how much Prince Charles intended to register. 

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