It was perhaps not entirely unexpected news that Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in his first, and final, autumn statement that the long-running plan to transfer the Land Registry of England and Wales to the private sector had finally been shelved. The first signs of a change of heart had, after all, been noted as early as September when the government dropped privatisation proposals from the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, despite insisting that no decisions had been taken on the matter.
In his autumn statement, Mr Hammond said:
‘Following consultation the government has decided that HM Land Registry should focus on becoming a more digital data-driven registration business, and to do this will remain in the public sector.’
That consultation, the second in two years, closed in May this year and had proposed transferring Land Registry operations to a ‘NewCo’ with a private sector shareholding. The planned proposals had attracted strong opposition from the legal sector and the Law Society, and had prompted widespread concerns about both threats to the integrity of the register and potential conflicts of interest. The government’s response to the consultation was due to be delivered in the autumn, but was put on hold because of the many uncertainties created by the Brexit vote.
The Chancellor’s statement followed the announcement of a contract to create a central register of local land charges data, to be managed by Land Registry. The announcement claimed that the ‘[central register] modernisation will maximise the value of HM Land Registry to the economy, and should be completed without a need for significant exchequer investment.’
The news of the U-turn on Land Registry privatisation has been broadly welcomed by the legal profession, though some saw some merit in the original proposal. The Law Society definitely welcomed the announcement, saying it was the right thing to do to protect the public interest. Chief executive, Catherine Dixon said:
‘This decision responds to the representations we, and other Land Registry users, made as to the risks of privatisation, and puts the public interests in this important institution first. We look forward to working with the Land Registry to assist it in delivering its ambitious modernisation plans.’
Eddie Goldsmith, chairman of The Conveyancing Association, also welcomed the government’s change of heart, saying:
‘We are very pleased that within the detail of today’s autumn statement we have the announcement that HM Land Registry will now not be privatised. The CA responded to the consultation on this matter and the vast majority of our members were in favour of the Land Registry remaining in the public sector, so we are clearly very supportive of today’s clarification.’
‘Interestingly, the autumn statement suggests that the Land Registry should become “a more digital data-driven registration business” and that “modernisation will maximise the value of [it] to the economy”. This, in effect, is a steer that it should focus on its core role of registration and delivering this through a digital process, which one assumes should include such things as e-signatures.’
‘We are fully supportive of moves towards an up-to-date digital conveyancing service. If we’re able to see the Land Registry moving swiftly in this direction then this ambition will be achieved much more quickly,’ he added.