Why we are on strike over plans to privatise the Land Registry

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed May 14 11:30:42 BST 2014

Why we are on strike over plans to privatise the Land Registry

Government's secret proposal to sell off the Land 
Registry could lead to mass job losses and erode transparency
There's no evidence outsourcing public services ever works
    * Michael Kavanagh, PCS - 
Professional, Wednesday 14 May 2014 09.00 BST
Haworth village hillside houses, Yorkshire

The first questions to ask when any major change 
is proposed should be: why? What problem are you 
trying to fix? What would be the benefits of doing it differently?

Despite proposing a fundamental transformation of 
the 150-year-old system of land registration, the 
government has failed to answer these questions.

Under the 
consultation by the Department for Business, 
Innovation and Skills, overseen by business 
minister Michael Fallon, the Land Registry could 
remain in the 
service. But there is clearly no appetite for 
this among ministers and senior officials, as 
both the consultation document and 
minutes published by the Guardian last week made 
clear. The intention is to strip the bulk of the 
agency of its civil service status and hive it 
off into a new "service delivery company" as a 
precursor, we believe, to a full-scale sell-off.

To understand what is at stake – and why we are 
on strike today and tomorrow,14 and 15 May – you 
have to first understand the Land Registry's role 
in the daily, often complex changes in land ownership in England and Wales.

Key among the organisation's many functions are 
quasi-judicial decisions on ownership and 
transfers, granting title and, crucially, 
guaranteeing legal rights on behalf of the state. 
This is not just of fundamental importance to 
homeowners, but an essential feature of our 
economy. The backbone of the system is its 
freedom from outside influence and commercial interest.

In his submission to the business department's 
consultation, former 
land registrar John Manthorpe puts it simply but 
eloquently: "What would otherwise be hidden is 
synthesised into a common, guaranteed and public 
record open to all. Security, confidence, 
choice – all become possible."

This means security and confidence for banks and 
building societies as well as individuals. If 
banks lost faith in the security of title or 
property ownership, they would be less inclined 
to lend to buyers and the property market would be in crisis.

Operating as a civil service trading fund, the 
registry receives no public money and adheres to 
strict rules to ensure surpluses are used to 
reduce the fees paid by users of the registry. It 
exemplifies the difference between public service and private profit.

The agency is also currently bound by government 
on procurement, designed to assist small and 
medium-sized businesses to compete against the 
oligopoly of large suppliers. But BIS has 
identified this as a problem, claiming greater 
flexibility in the private sector to buy goods 
and services. In a truly astonishing move, a 
government agency faces being changed into a 
commercial company so it can avoid the very 
controls the government brought in to protect 
small businesses. This shows how poorly thought through the proposal is.

We have seen – but cannot disclose because of a 
confidentiality agreement – the details of 
unpublished plans to radically alter the way the 
Land Registry operates, which would mean mass job 
losses and office closures and to which this 
proposal is inextricably linked. We asked the 
government to publish and fully consult on these 
plans but it has flatly refused. We have also 
repeatedly asked the agency's chief executive, Ed 
Lester, for assurances there will be no 
compulsory redundancies, but he has promised the exact opposite.

We are immensely proud of our work, and 
confidence and trust in us is impressively high, 
whether measured against other public services or 
profit-making businesses. We have the support of 
industry professionals and when the results of 
the consultation are published, we believe they 
will show the vast majority of respondents are 
utterly opposed to any notion of a sell-off.

The government's rationale is not just paper 
thin, it is non-existent. There is no problem 
that needs fixing. This is why we have been 
forced to take strike action, and we will 
continue campaigning until these ill-thought 
through and politically motivated plans are ditched.

Michael Kavanagh, president of Public and 
Commercial Services (PCS) union's Land Registry 
group. More than 3,000 PCS members work for the Land Registry

• Want your say? Email us at public.leaders at theguardian.com

the Public Leaders Network for more comment, 
analysis and 
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twitter via<https://twitter.com/guardianpublic>@Guardianpublic
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