From The Guardian:
The Land Registry is being put for up for sale less than two years after the Liberal Democrats blocked previous plans for a £1bn-plus privatisation.
Sajid Javid, the business secretary, faced immediate criticism for announcing the selloff of the 150-year-old agency – which maintains records on the ownership of land and property across England and Wales – just as the Easter break was about to begin.
Union leaders criticised what they called the “cynical” timing. Mark Serwotka,general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: “Homebuyers and owners rely on the Land Registry to provide an impartial professional service and it must remain under public control, free from any profit motive and conflict of interest.
“It is utterly disgraceful that the government waited until the end of the day before MPs break for Easter to publish its consultation, but is a sure sign ministers know the strength and breadth of opposition they will face.”
The Land Registry employs more than 4,500 civil servants and plays an important role in the property market, holding 24m titles for the ownership of properties across England and Wales.
George Osborne is keen to press ahead with selling off £20bn-worth of public assets, including stakes in the bailed-out banks, by the end of this parliament, in what is expected to be the biggest wave of privatisations since Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street.
Javid said he was “committed to enabling Land Registry to meet government objectives in the best way possible”. He added: “Creating an organisation that can focus on delivering modernised services and bringing in ‘best in class’ knowledge and external investment is a key part of this.
“High quality Land Registry services and confidence in the property market will remain a priority for government throughout this process.”
Labour promised to fight this latest privatisation, which shadow business secretary Angela Eagle described as “unnecessary, un-evidenced and unwanted”.
She added: “This short-term privatisation will have long-term consequences; it could undermine confidence in Land Registry data, jeopardise the service to homebuyers, and erode conditions for their staff. The government are privatising the profits of the Land Registry – which made a surplus of £100m in 2012/13 – while retaining the risk.”
Business secretary Sajid Javid outlined the proposals just before parliament’s Easter recess. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
In a consultation document, the government set out several models for the new agency, with its preferred option being privatisation with a contract to the government. This could be in place by 2017. Other options include a mutual joint venture between government and a private firm and privatisation with a new regulator in place.
Previous plans to privatise the organisation met with concern among some in the property industry, with fears that charges could increase and the public could lose free access to some data.
Henry Pryor, a buying agent and property commentator, said he was concerned about how a privatised Land Registry would monetise the records it held. “Who will ensure that your private details won’t be sold on to a third party looking to sell you stone cladding or to pave your driveway?” he said. “Do we really want to rely on the private sector to guard the details of what for most people is their most valuable asset?”
Andrew Lloyd, managing director of Search Acumen, which uses the Land Registry to verify property ownership for law firms handling purchases, said the process of consultation had to be transparent. “The threat to the register’s integrity when in private hands has been a major source of concern for many in the conveyancing industry, and the consultation is likely to prompt a heated debate,” he said.
Lloyd said the registry had “made huge strides” in commercialising its activities and opening up data on land and property ownership. “Looming privatisation may cast a shadow over these recent developments and the long term plans that Land Registry has already set in motion,” he added.
The consultation document said that in recent years Land Registry’s income had exceeded its expenditure as a result of the housing market recovery. In 2014/15 total costs were £260.5m, while revenue hit £297.1m.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said Land Registry would continue to support the property market. “A sale of Land Registry could allow government to pay down debt, or enable other investment for the benefit of taxpayers,” the department said in a statement.
“It is expected that a move into the private sector would also allow Land Registry to become even more efficient. At the same time it could continue with an appropriate level of service to support the property market.”