Why do the Tories want to hide who owns our countrys land?
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Mar 31 01:15:11 BST 2016
Why do the Tories want to hide who owns our countrys land?
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 isnt 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
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
werent 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 cant 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.
Its still a bad idea. Just ask John Manthorpe,
the former chief land registrar,
on the We own it website says: The Registrys
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
sentence of the foreword of the consultation:
Reducing the national debt. It then breezily
suggests that the Land Registry doesnt 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.
Its the usual buzzword bingo. Yet the Land
Registry isnt 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, its 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 countrys ownership?
Why do the Tories want to put barriers in the way
of people who want to know about the countrys ownership?
Just over 10 years ago, Michael Cross and I
Our Data campaign in the Guardians 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 wasnt initially greeted with open
arms. But following Gordon Browns 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 arms 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 campaigns work wont really be done
until the government stops having stupid ideas
about privatising the data which should be
publicly held. Weve already suffered from
Michael Fallons 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. Thats open data - albeit with a
caveat: the address data is owned by Royal Mail,
so theres a fee payable if you try to attach
addresses to the price data. Another missed
chance by the Tories, through Fallons 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 arms length
from government would do a better job for customers. Answer: 91% said no.
So who wanted privatisation? As the campaigner
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? Its certainly not clear the Tories do.
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