Privatising the Land Registry risks "repeating the same mistakes" of previous outsourcing arrangements and could undermine the government's bid to make more data publicly accessible, according to the Open Data Institute.
The Treasury announced last year that the government intended 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.
A consultation on the latest proposals – which come after an attempt at part-privatisation was shelved in the last parliament – makes clear that the organisation’s registers would continue to be owned by government, but argues that “there is no need for the core functions of the Land Registry to be delivered by civil servants”.
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The government has said that a new owner for the Land Registry – which currently employs more than 4,500 officials – could “bring new knowledge and investment into the organisation” to ensure it “accelerates its transformation into a more efficient and effective service delivery organisation”.
However, the plans have already been criticised by the PCS union and the organisation's former chief executive John Manthorpe, who has warned that private ownership could introduce conflicts of interest into the vast range of transactions that Land Registry information underpins.
Now the Open Data Institute, the non-profit organisation co-founded by world wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has voiced its own concerns about the possible impact of the sale.
In a draft response to the government's consultation, the ODI says that ministers have not been clear about their plans to allow open access to Land Registry data under its favoured "NewCo" model, and warns that there is "little detail on the skills and access required to manage and audit" the Land Registry's services.
"The consultation says that the registers will remain the property of the government," the ODI says. "It is not clear whether all rights to current or future data will be retained by government or how government would be able to transfer the operations of the register to another supplier if NewCo failed to deliver on its commitments."
It adds: "The proposed model appears very similar to historic examples of long-term outsourcing deals and risks repeating the same mistakes. Mistakes that have been highlighted by both the Public Accounts Committee and the government’s previous Chief Digital and Data Officer."
The ODI also questions the wisdom of introducing a profit motive into the Land Registry, pointing out that a private owner would be obliged to "maximise their own return rather than consider the impact on the economy as a whole", a stance that could put it at odds with efforts to open up datasets for the benefit of the wider economy.
It adds: "Infrastructure, such as the data registers maintained by the Land Registry, benefits from long-term strategic decision making. This challenges the approach in the consultation and the stated desire to 'gain revenues by corporate and financial asset sales'. A different approach to the Land Registry will provide increased economic growth and innovation."
Elsewhere, the ODI says it is "unclear" how the new organisation would be incentivised to keep pace with new technology, including blockchains and distributed ledgers, and wonders whether a sold-off Land Registry would be bound by the common standards for public services developed by the Government Digital Service.
The ODI's concerns were echoed on Tuesday by Frank Field – the Labour MP who chairs the work and pensions select committee. Field said he feared that "messing around with the Land Registry" could undermine efforts to investigate offshore property ownership.
"This body could be key to discovering who secretly owns property in Britain and whether some of those people are laundering money," he told The Times.
The ODI has invited users to add their suggestions to its draft submission before it starts work on a final document on April 29. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' consultation on the privatisation plan runs until May 26.