Why do the Tories want to hide who owns our country’s land?

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Mar 31 01:15:11 BST 2016

Why do the Tories want to hide who owns our country’s land?

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Selling off the Land Registry could lead to an 
increase in house prices as a private monopoly 
hoards information on property sales
Houses in Brighton
  ‘The Land Registry isn’t a burden on the 
taxpayer; it generates a profit, because everyone 
who buys or sells property is obliged to update 
it, and pay a fee.’ Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Wednesday 30 March 2016 14.01 BSTLast modified on 
Wednesday 30 March 201619.04 BST
Charles Arthur

Like an embarrassed child trying to hide a broken 
lamp behind a curtain, Sajid Javid last Thursday, 
hours before the Easter break, 
out the news that the government wants to 
privatise the Land Registry. Perhaps he hoped nobody would notice.

In vain. The growing number of people who rely on 
open government data to run businesses and 
understand what is happening to the country 
weren’t fooled at all. Selling the Land Registry 
is foolish dogma that risks creating a private 
monopoly over what should be publicly available 
data. It would mean squandering long-term income 
for short-term gain; putting vital information 
beyond reach of the Freedom of Information Act; 
and creating a future where we can’t find out how 
our country is owned without stumping up fees of unknown size.

The idea was floated to, and 
by, Vince Cable in the previous administration. 
It’s still a bad idea. Just ask John Manthorpe, 
the former chief land registrar, 
on the We own it website says: “The Registry’s 
independence from commercial or specialised 
interests is essential to the trust and reliance placed on its activities”.

The Tories’ reason for the proposed sell-off is 
in the 
sentence of the foreword of the consultation: 
“Reducing the national debt.” It then breezily 
suggests that the Land Registry doesn’t have to 
be publicly owned “as long as the right 
protections are put in place, including keeping 
the statutory register under government 
ownership”. Instead, it could “continue to evolve 
into a high performing, innovative business, 
delivering for customers and the wider market in 
a 21st century, digital economy”.

It’s the usual buzzword bingo. Yet the Land 
Registry isn’t a burden on the taxpayer; it 
generates a profit, because everyone who buys or 
sells property is obliged to update it, and pay a 
fee. More importantly, it creates a record. 
“Enforcing land ownership is not just some random 
thing the state does, it’s thecore thing the 
state does,” Francis Irving, a programmer and 
activist for open data who co-founded the 
prize-winning data startup ScraperWiki, told me. 
“In a digital age especially, registry of land 
and boundaries is a key part of property ownership enforcement.”

Making land data available to everyone for free 
was a key change in 
Africa after apartheid: it was recognised as 
important to make every citizen equal. So why do 
the Tories want to put price and secrecy barriers 
in the way of people who want to know about the country’s ownership?

Why do the Tories want to put barriers in the way 
of people who want to know about the country’s ownership?

Just over 10 years ago, Michael Cross and I 
started the 
Our Data campaign in the Guardian’s Technology 
section, arguing that the fees being charged for 
access to non-personal government-held data – 
such as Ordnance Survey map data, Environment 
Agency flood, river and reservoir data, company 
filings, even tide times – were blocking the 
creation of a new economic sector: digital 
companies which could create value by putting 
different datasets together. (ScraperWiki is the 
sort of company that relies on such access.)

The proposal wasn’t initially greeted with open 
arms. But following Gordon Brown’s arrival in 
2009, the ball began rolling: Tom Watson, then 
Cabinet Office minister, was an enthusiastic 
proponent of free data inside the government, and 
we then discovered that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, held 
the same view, which he put to Brown at a dinner. 
Brown agreed. It turns out that running a 
campaign gets easier when the inventor of the 
world wide web and the prime minister support the idea behind it.

The big breakthrough was in April 2010, when 
Ordnance Survey released a 
amount of data for free commercial reuse – an 
idea that would have been laughable four years 
earlier, when small web developers were fending 
off lawsuits over map screenshots. Other 
departments followed. Once the Environment 
Agency, which had resisted calls to make its data 
freely available because it was an “executive 
agency”, at arm’s length from the government, 
caved in, I thought the fight would be over. It 
took the 2014 floods to start getting river level data for free.

However the campaign’s work won’t really be done 
until the government stops having stupid ideas 
about privatising the data which should be 
publicly held. We’ve already suffered from 
Michael Fallon’s decision to sell off the 
income-generating Postcode Address File (PAF) 
database with Royal Mail – which means the 
had to set aside £5m (but will need more) in the 
budget to create a “national address register”, 
with exactly the same information. PAF is now an 
expensive private monopoly which many businesses 
have no alternative but to rely on, .

By contrast, you can download 
“price paid” data from the Land Registry going 
back to January 1995 for free, and use it for 
business. That’s open data - albeit with a 
caveat: the address data is owned by Royal Mail, 
so there’s a fee payable if you try to attach 
addresses to the price data. Another missed 
chance by the Tories, through Fallon’s selloff. 
Sell the Registry off, and prices could rise; as 
a monopoly with inside knowledge it could crowd 
rivals out of the information market and refuse to license data.

The worst part? The Tories know this already. In 
2014 they tried the same consultation. The first 
question was whether people thought a “more 
delivery-focused organisation at arm’s length 
from government” would do a better job for customers. Answer: 91% said no.

So who wanted privatisation? As the campaigner 
<http://owenboswarva.com/>Owen Boswarva 
pointed out, not small businesses, legal 
representatives or councils. It was big companies 
such as the outsourcing firm Capita, IBM, and 
private equity group Silver Lake Europe. Are we 
really sure they have our best interests at 
heart? It’s certainly not clear the Tories do.

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