Even in this, the best-mapped country in the world, we do not know who owns half our land, what lawful use most of it can be put to, or whether those claiming rights over it (by virtue of occupation) do have rights. In a computer-driven knowledge economy, we know less about land ownership in Britain than we did 140 years ago.
At last, several national and European initiatives, such as the proposed directive on spatial information published in July (under the acronym Inspire), are making inroads into this information desert.
But it is only since last year that everyone who buys, sells, leases, mortgages, assigns any rights to, or intends to evict squatters from "their" land has been obliged to electronically register their claim to title with the Land Registry. In Scotland, the land registers are already complete and Northern Ireland's is heading toward completion. Yet, in England and Wales, although the Land Registry is geared up to do this by 2010, there is still no legislation requiring retrospective registration of title.
Fifteen years ago, a House of Lords inquiry into the state of national land information recommended more joined-up thinking in this area. Government ducked the issue of making a single minister or department responsible and left it to Ordnance Survey (OS), whose director general advises ministers on survey, mapping and "geographic information". GI is much more than maps, covering elements such as addresses, land ownership and use, value and geology.
Last July, the government announced that it intended to create an independent GI panel to advise on longer-term issues. However, OS is forced by the Treasury to be commercial in its dealings with local government (which names streets and places), Royal Mail (which assigns postcodes) and a whole range of private and public sector bodies that create and use geographic information, not always in the form of maps. This is a conflict of interest, according to leading figures in the Association for Geographic Information, and is holding back vital projects.
One such is the National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG). The address of a property can be held in a number of forms - one local authority found that it held more than 100 separate address lists. The gazetteer is supposed to allocate a "unique property reference number", so that any organisation can know what is referred to. Such information is valuable. According to Tony Black, who runs the gazetteer, UK property addressing is used by about £1 trillion worth of business every year.
The national gazetteer is a collection of 440 local gazetteers created and maintained by local councils responsible for street naming and numbering, for awarding planning permission to developers and ensuring that properties get built according to plan. Councils provide OS with information about land changes; OS then maps the physical reality, takes postcode information from Royal Mail, adds "its" map reference and "allows" councils (under licence) to compile "their" local gazetteers. Black's company Intelligent Addressing assigns unique property reference numbers to everything and the result is the NLPG.
Almost all councils are "in" the NLPG, but its quality is patchy and the main national players have different priorities. For example, Royal Mail doesn't give a fig for properties without letter boxes. Arguments arise over who does what and who pays to resolve technical issues; yet, in the "big picture", these are small sums.
There is also the question of land use. The European directive holds that we should know about land use as well as ownership. But our planning system does not allow us to create a proper record of use, although such a project has existed - almost unfunded - since John Prescott was reminded in 1998 that we had no precise information about derelict urban land; a situation helped by the UK being alone in the entire world in exempting vacant land and derelict buildings from tax. The current National Land Use Database merely takes a stab at the amount of unused land. So the Valuations Office Agency has tax records only where a building is fit to occupy or a piece of land has an occupied building on it.
The National Land Information Service is a ray of hope. Where properties in a house-buying chain are all registered with the Land Registry, transactions that used to take weeks can be completed online in minutes, cutting stress and saving money.
To the dismay of many, the EU directive has emerged shorn of a third of its original purposes. Instead of requiring member states to create land information data- sets, the proposal merely requires them to state what records they have or are planning. This will do little more than expose existing inadequacies.
We need a government champion for GI, independent of OS or producer agencies. We need to look at the entire range of GI applications and produce a business case for full specification of land management information, including land value.
Nobody should be allowed to demand so much as a visit from a rat-catcher until their title to own or occupy a given property is proven - let alone get brown envelopes from any publicly funded grant or subsidy scheme associated with land. We should not allow a lack of information on ownership, lawful use and value to be an excuse for not taxing land.