Two years after a policy U-turn on proposals to privatise HM Land Registry, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has finally published an analysis of responses to the consultation that informed the decision.
It said that more than 27,000 responses were received to the call for views, the vast majority of which came “as a result of organised campaigns” and were opposed to the privatisation. BEIS did not specify the balance of support for the proposals among the 4% of responses it said had come from consultation response forms, letters and individual e-mails.
Then chancellor George Osborne announced in 2015 that the government wanted to move the Land Registry, which keeps an up-to-date register of land ownership in England and Wales, to the private sector by 2017, as part of wider plans to raise £5bn from government asset sales.
It followed through by launching a consultation on the move, which would have seen 4,500 civil servants transfer to a new employer, in March the following year. At the time the PCS union was extremely vocal in its opposition to the sell off, and others – including the Open Data Institute – were too.
BEIS’s analysis of the consultation responses said that a large proportion of respondents were “opposed on principle” to the privatisation and gave no view on the different models of privatisation proposed by its predecessor organisation, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, under which the consultation was launched.
The consultation analysis noted that many respondents had made reference to the fact that as a trading fund HM Land Registry already paid dividends to the Exchequer and that government risked losing a profitable organisation that was not currently funded by the taxpayer.
BEIS said that many respondents had raised concerns over the potential for a new Land Registry owner to be “solely focused on profits rather than quality of service” and that the situation would be exacerbated by monopoly-provider status. Some consultees also said they believed a privatised Land Registry would be less transparent and “subject to corruption and abuse”, while its staff would be seen as less trustworthy and impartial than civil servants.
BEIS said the government was “clear that there is no suggestion that private sector staff are inherently less trustworthy than civil servants” and that ministers did not accept that HM Land Registry would “automatically” have been exposed to more corruption and fraud. It added that one of the protections it had envisaged for the proposed privatisation was that the Land Register and statutory data should remain under Crown ownership.
Respondents were split on the usefulness of HM Land Registry offering additional open-data products as a result of the privatisation – something suggested as a possible benefit of privatisation. The Land Registry has subsequently committed to publishing a wider variety of data in “high quality and accessible formats” anyway.
BEIS concluded that the government’s decision not to privatise the Land Registry, whihc was confirmed in September 2016, had not stopped its drive for the service to become a more digital data-driven registration business.
“Digitisation and increased transparency is enabling HM Land Registry to provide a quicker, more efficient service to customers, and maximise its value to the economy,” it said.
“HM Land Registry digitisation is part of a wider government agenda to help improve and speed up the process of home-buying.”
The department did not explain why it had taken two years for the document to be published.