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Government / Local politics

Nobody knows who owns 17 per cent of England and Wales: why we need land market transparency

Regular readers of CityMetric will no doubt be aware of the scale of our housing crisis, but it is always worth reiterating. In 2016, the building of affordable homes hit a 24 year low. Completions of new homes overall is around 140,000, some way off the 250,000 minimum we actually need per year. With house prices soaring well ahead of wages, and rising levels of homelessness at the sharpest end, we are facing a huge challenge.

One of the central reasons for this crisis is our failure, over many years, to build enough homes. And at the heart of this failure is our dysfunctional land market – and its astonishing lack of transparency.

The first thing you need to build houses is land – but getting to know who really owns a piece of land and what it can be used for is a labyrinthine task. The government has a perfect opportunity to change this in the forthcoming Housing White Paper – and we are hoping to see them take decisive action.

It seems baffling in this day and age that, if a piece of land hasn’t been bought or sold since the Land Registry was established in 1862, then one of your only ways of finding out who owns it is by turning up in the nearest town, and knocking on people’s doors to ask for clues.

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Even if the land you’re interested in is part of the 83 per cent of England and Wales which is registered, it can still be a challenge. It costs £3 a pop to ask the Land Registry what the boundary of a plot of land is, and another £3 to find out who owns it. This seemingly negligible amount soon piles up when you consider that even a small site could be divided into several separate titles – for example, if they have been bought and sold separately at some point in the last 150 years.

But it’s not just ownership information which can be tricky to access. From planning applications and designations to environmental information, there’s a whole host of important land data – caught in a tangle between different bodies in different formats, and all with varying degrees of accessibility.

Aside from this problematic system, why is the lack of transparency in the land market such a problem for building the homes we need? We believe it boils down to three key issues:

  • Firstly, it’s a barrier to entry to new entrants and smaller housebuilders. When so much information is held in different places with varying levels of accessibility, it creates a serious barrier for smaller firms trying to identify possible development sites. It requires a huge amount of upfront time and resource – without any guarantee of results.
  • Secondly, it acts as a stranglehold on the planning system. Without an overall view of ownership and boundaries of land in an area, local planning authorities are reliant on land being put forward for development by land owners. This is instead of strategically planning for the best growth for an area – which slows down housebuilding, making the system more cumbersome. 
  • Finally, it undermines public trust in the planning and development systems. Plans are agreed between a developer and a local community – but local people are not privy to who really controls the land at the heart of these plans. They are essentially cut out of this important stage in the democratic process.

What’s interesting about this problem, however, is that it is eminently solvable. The government could start by scrapping the Land Registry’s £3 search fee in the upcoming Housing White Paper. This would have little impact on the Registry’s income, but would be of huge benefit for local communities, planners, and potential homebuilders searching for sites.


Government should then look to organise the existing data better. We know this is possible, as some pioneering organisations have already tried it. MappingGM, for example, have created a series of fantastic maps which allow you to explore Greater Manchester’s housing, planning and infrastructure data.

For the sake of the millions of families priced out of the housing market and struggling with sky-high rents, the government must reform the land market and help create a climate to get us building more homes. The Housing White Paper just around the corner is the perfect opportunity to set out how it intends to crack open this problem.

Catharine Banks is an assistant policy officer at Shelter. The housing charity has outlined a comprehensive set of proposals to improve land market transparency – as well as other suggestions for the White Paper – in its Policy Library.

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