We are proposing to hand away property details at the very point journalists need them most

Late last year, as the government indicated it was prepared to water down the Freedom of Information Act, industry publication Press Gazette launched a petition. It was one of a range of factors which led to a promise to leave the Act alone.

This year we face a similar threat. But the industry press is silent. Press Gazette say nothing. Hold The Front Page is empty of reference.

What am I talking about? The Land Registry.

The government is holding a consultation on moving Land Registry operations to the private sector, and with one week left the industry press needs to wake up.

A hot topic

Land Registry data has been part of some of the biggest stories of the last 12 months. In September Private Eye used Land Registry data to show how much property in England and Wales was owned by offshore companies.

More recently, the Panama Papers have made the issue even more topical.

Land Registry data represents two of the ten most downloaded open datasets, and one of the few with journalistic value identified, as research by Jonathan Stoneman highlights. Simon Briscoe wrote recently about changes to these.

“This would rule out any large-scale investigation into land, forever.”

Anna Powell-Smith, one of those involved in the Private Eye story, points out that if the Land Registry is privatised, it will no longer be subject to FOI. “Investigations like this will become impossible,” she says.

“The Land Registry’s open datasets do not contain information on property ownership. So unless you are a company with a large budget, the only way other than FoI to find out who owns what is to pay £3 to get details for an individual property.
“Under privatisation, this would rule out any large-scale investigation into land, forever.

Open data expert Owen Boswarva is also concerned. “Privatising a monopoly can never make good economic sense,” he says. “However we may be making too much of a link between the proposed Land Registry selloff and the future availability of property ownership data. ”

“The core question is: can we provide Government with a motive to release the registry data? BIS and Treasury have never been supporters of open data for its own sake. Land Registry itself is protective of the existing information market it has built around the artificial scarcity of ownership data.”

Indeed, the Open Data Institute’s Jeni Tennison wrote recently about the difficulties of accessing ‘free’ Land Registry property data.

An opportunity to make property information more open

For Boswarva the consultation represents an opportunity. “The Panama Papers has created a background of unease about the lack of transparency around wealth and ownership,” he says, “at home and overseas. Given the nature of our economy, property ownership is likely to remain a focus of that unease in the UK.

“It could be in the Government’s interests to unlock the Land Registry data as a meaningful gesture towards transparency. Doing so may even make privatisation of Land Registry more palatable, if BIS writes open data into the terms of sale. The Land Registry [could be compelled] to release all its property ownership data without having a significant impact on its business model.”

Powell-Smith agrees:

“If the government is truly committed to transparency, it must commit to making the land register subject to FOI, even under commercial ownership.”

The consultation paper does not mention any plans to continue to keep the Land Registry covered by the FOI Act.

Also not mentioned in the paper are any plans to protect new data collected by the Land Registry, an omission which members of the Open Government Network (OGN) note in a draft response could leave access “frozen at current levels”.

Moving the Land Registry out of public control also raises other issues, particularly around addressing the 15% of England and Wales where no land titles are recorded. The OGN draft response notes that:

“If the government is serious about tackling corruption and tax evasion and improving how we monitor land ownership, the mechanism for recording legal interests in land should be kept in public hands.”

10 questions

The consultation asks 10 questions, but at the moment the news industry isn’t asking any. We have less than a week to start talking.

This was first published on the Online Journalism Blog.