Land Registry Sell-off a Threat to Investigative Journalism, Warns NMA
Journalists could face greater barriers to investigating who owns Britain if the government presses ahead with its plans to privatise the Land Registry, the News Media Association has warned.
A privatised Land Registry could be removed from Freedom of Information laws and would have no commercial incentive to continue to make available large datasets on land values and ownership as it does at the moment, the NMA argues in its response to the consultation setting out the plans.
Among the data that the Land Registry has made public are the identities of the offshore companies that have bought up billions of pounds of UK property in recent decades. Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron indicated that this could be expanded to include the beneficial ownership of those companies as well.
In its response to the consultation, the NMA expresses concern that the sell-off plans do not explain how a privatised Land Registry could be required to continue to increase the information it puts into the public domain. It also notes that the consultation does not preclude subjecting additional data releases to higher fees or restrictive licences.
“A privatised Land Registry would have a strong commercial incentive to do this and the chilling effect on journalists’ ability to access this information would be profound,” said Lucy Gill, NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs advisor.
“Once privatised, the Land Registry would cease to be a public body and therefore could be removed from freedom of information legislation. This would put a large amount of important information beyond the press and the public’s right to know.”
The NMA’s concerns echo those expressed by the Open Data Institute, which has said: “at a time when government is trying to break down organisational silos and use data better within government it is strange to see it building barriers in our data infrastructure.”
The consultation closes next Thursday (26 May).
- The Sunday Times used data released by the Land Registry to calculate that between 1999 and 2014, foreign companies bought £150bn of property in the UK. According to the paper’s analysis of Land Registry data, there were 96,440 property transactions by 35,922 companies registered by the Land Registry in the past 15 years. The discovery came amid mounting concern about the use of anonymous shell companies to buy luxury properties, a practice that can be a conduit for money laundering.
- The Liverpool Echo, in turn, used this data to discover that between 1999 and 2014, investors bought at least £3.75bn worth of property on Merseyside using offshore companies – including tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and Panama.
- The Guardian has been one of many newspapers to use Land Registry data to track the soaring cost of housing around the capital that is pricing an entire generation out of the property market.
- The Times has reported that property title fraud claims have hit a three-year high, resulting in £9m being paid out in compensation from the Land Registry’s indemnity fund. The research, based on FOI requests to the Land Registry, was compiled by Titlesolv insurance and property and risk solutions provider.