Why privatise the land registry?

On January 23 2014, the government began a consultation to consider plans for the privatisation of the Land Registry. The government believes that changing the property database would modernise the service and improve efficiency, but will it?

The Land Registry registers the ownership of property in the UK and is one of the largest property databases in Europe. It is currently controlled by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and is self-financing. If it were privatised, it would move from the civil service into a joint venture with a private company.

The lack of publicity shows that the government anticipated strong opposition to the initiative, and they were proved right when thousands of members of the Public and Commercial Services union staged a 48-hour strike on 14 and 15 May.

The Land Registry is a primary exemplification of the difference between public service and private profit. It is self-sufficient and ensures that surpluses are dedicated to reducing users’ fees.  The main advantages of the current system is its ability to resist commercial influence by providing a system is open to all – guaranteeing users’ security and confidence. This is vital for banks, who without this assurance may be more hesitant to use the system as a basis of their lending. Critics claim that a privatised system will undoubtedly be less transparent, reducing banks’ confidence and therefore potentially causing a crisis in the property market.

The Land Registry is also responsible for assisting small/medium sized businesses facing competition against larger ones. Changing it from a government agency to a commercial company may render it open to the greater influence that larger corporation can bring to these disputes.

However, others argue that there are key advantages. For example, proponents of the privatisation claim that any removal from political influence will mean that decisions won’t be tainted by political expediency, and that introducing commercial drive will lead to greater efficiencies.

But why not keep it as it is?   The government has yet to fully explain the rationale behind the sale and explain why it is considering reforming the 150-year-old system.  Moreover, the general public does not appear to think that the Land Registry needs much improvement – the organization regularly scores customer satisfaction ratings of close to 100%.

Critics of privatisation claim that the current service is efficient enough and costs have remained low enough to make the Land Registry self-sufficient. On the other hand, advocates state that privatisation will bring some much needed cash to the economy. Clearly, there will be much further consultation between all parties to ensure that the correct decision is made, and also to secure all-important public support.

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