Finishing the land register is a key challenge for land reform to progress
IN 2012 the Land Registration Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament. When it came into force in 2014 the government made a bold demand: complete the new land register within a decade.
As land reform was rising up the political agenda, transparency of ownership has become a key issue. Without knowing who owns Scotland – and having that information available to the government or the public – how can anyone seek to change dysfunctional ownership or use of land? How can any serious progress be made on land taxation?
That task of land registration sits officially with the Registers of Scotland, a public agency that manages data mapping for various public interests.
John King, business development director of the Registers of Scotland, spoke to CommonSpace about its role in the years ahead.
How confident are you that Registers of Scotland will meet its public and private land registration deadlines?
“I can say with a high degree of confidence – in terms of the overall target which is 2024 – that really good progress will be made towards it. It’s impossible at this juncture to say whether every single piece of land in Scotland be on the land register or not. But what I can say is that it will be substantially complete.
“I can say that with a high degree of confidence because in some respects it’s a numbers game. There’s a finite amount of land in Scotland. What are the various ways in which that land will come onto the land register? There’s the transaction basis – people buying and selling. We know that there’s a large number of areas that will come on that way.
“We know that collaboration on voluntary registration will have an impact. That’s working. We also recognise that we have powers. So we can register land.
“Using those three areas that will bring in a lot of land. We’ve said in our consultation documents that we will – towards the end of the target 2024 – we’ll get into an end game where we’re left with a number of properties that are not on the register.
“We’ll have to go back and say well is the legislation appropriate? Will it bring them on? Do we need to do something different? In my mind I’ve always felt that’s a discussion that will have to be had around 2021/2022.”
You mentioned a pilot to transfer urban properties onto the register en masse. What decisions have been made at this stage?
“We consulted on it, using the powers [of keeper-induced registration] where it is appropriate. We’ve done a lot of ‘pre-work’ for urban properties. So we already know the extent of these properties, the title conditions, and their rights.
“One of the advantages of keeper induced registration is being able to share that information and bring properties onto the land register. The feedback we got from the consultation was it would be a good use of public resource to go ahead and do that.”
Registers of Scotland is the only arms-length government agency funded by its own revenue. What benefits and drawbacks are there to that status?
“From our view it’s purely a benefit. We have the ability to control funding over a number of years, so we’re ideally placed for big pieces of work like completing the land register – which was a ten year time frame. So being able to budget and plan ahead – being a trading fund, being self-financing – is fantastic for that.
“We get asked to do other projects by the Scottish Government as well. We’ve been asked to develop the property information system. Again that’s a lengthy piece of work. So being able to plan ahead, and not have that problem – ‘will we have a budget for it next year?’ – is really helpful.”
Some of this revenue comes from fees to access registers. Some argue for a ‘free to access’ public register, which would impact on Registers of Scotland’s current revenue strategy. What’s your view on this?
“I suppose a dialogue has started. That dialogue’s going to continue. The dialogue really came from the broader land reform agenda, and the wider desire for more transparency about who owns Scotland. We’re self-funding. We bring in income from access to our registers, although some of our registers are free to access (the crofting register).
“If information is given away completely free, who pays for that? With a land register the information we display comes from people buying and selling property, in the main. They’re often not the people who want access to the register.
“You end up with questions like is it appropriate that they pay to make the information available? It may be as we move forward there’s more of a half way house, so rather than providing all the very detailed information that’s on the land register free of charge, we might start to look at what’s the key information that people are clamouring for and what are the funding options around that.
“Obviously, free access is one of those options.”
Picture courtesy of Gregor Smith