Government plans to privatise the Land Registry outlined in the Queen’s Speech could pose a direct threat to the strong public interest journalism for which the UK news media industry is renowned across the world.
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.
This would inevitably result in this important information becoming shrouded in a veil of secrecy, leading to greater barriers to journalists investigating who owns Britain.
Examples of these important stories are numerous. Last week, The Guardian used Land Registry data to report on the increase in offshore ownership of London properties, prompting concerns about the effect this could be having on house prices in the capital.
Earlier in the year, The Yorkshire Post used Land Registry information to look at the implications of ownership on the wider economy, reporting on a trend of expensive properties in the region being bought by local people rather than those from outside the area, and explaining that this reflected well on the Yorkshire’s business community.
The Times reported that property title fraud claims have hit a three-year high, resulting in £9 million being paid out in compensation from the Land Registry’s indemnity fund. The story was based on FOI requests to the Land Registry.
The Liverpool Echo discovered that between 1999 and 2014, investors bought at least £3.75 billion worth of property on Merseyside using offshore companies – including tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and Panama.
The News Media Association, which represents national and local news media publishers, has argued this case in response to a consultation from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills setting out the plans, and will continue to do so.
And it’s not just the news media industry which is concerned by the proposals.
In an unusual intervention, the Competition and Markets Authority warned that allowing a private firm to take possession of property ownership information could create a monopoly on commercially valuable data, with no incentive to improve access to it.
The Open Data Institute has voiced similar concerns about a monopoly and the potential for the owner to compete with its own customers in producing services that use it.
The British Property Federation has warned that radical changes to the current system could undermine confidence in the security of property title in the UK, impacting upon investment in property in the UK.
John Manthorpe, the former chief land registrar, made a similar point when he argued that privatisation could fatally undermine the entire land and property market.
The NMA is deeply concerned about these proposals and the effect they would have on our local and national news media publishers to report on movements in a marketplace which is worth trillions of pounds.
We cannot let our ability to scrutinise who owns Britain, and the ability of news media journalists who do so on our behalf, be taken away from us.
Lucy Gill is legal, policy and regulatory affairs advisor of the News Media Association