The Land Registry is changing the way homes are bought and sold

The Land Registry's Chief Executive and Chief Registrar explains how housebuying's most integral government service is changing.

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Think of any housing development in England and Wales and consider who is ensuring the homes are built and sold. HM Land Registry is probably not high on your list of key partners and may not feature at all. Yet the role we play in providing secure homes for owners and tenants is crucial and growing.

Our ongoing transformation to become the world’s leading land registry for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data is focused on supporting homebuilding and making the conveyancing process simpler, faster and cheaper for everyone. We are at the forefront in determining how data and digital technology can improve property transactions. As a result we are reforming our working practices, introducing new digital services, exploring the future of land registration through our Digital Street project and operating in new areas where our experience and skills are relevant and beneficial.

Our involvement in complex housing developments and infrastructure projects begins long before the first digger moves onto the site. We work with property developers to help them with their land acquisition decisions and estate planning. In the past year we have improved our service to them by creating expert teams to support them. By standardising the work associated with site acquisition, our instructions on how plots of land within a development should be processed and training for recently recruited colleagues to work on large-scale applications, we have created a far more fluid system.

At the former Hendon Police College site at Colindale Gardens in North London, for example, more than 3,000 residential and commercial plots will form 24 phases of development over the next 10 to 15 years. Our experts made recommendations to the developer on the creation of multiple “parent” titles, from which leases are created, and gave guidance on requirements which have sped up the conveyancing process for subsequent sales.

We are now looking further into the needs of developers when they undertake larger schemes and will continue to develop specific products aimed at making the registration of large developments simpler. We will also promote homebuilding by fulfilling our strategic aim to register all land and property in England and Wales by 2030. A comprehensive register of freehold land where the owner is known and the extent of their ownership can be geospatially defined will be a boon for everyone involved in developing new homes.

Our first targets are to complete the registration of publicly held land in areas with the greatest housing need, and the registration of all local authority housing stock by 2020. We have worked with government partners to create a list of all unregistered public land, which will be the starting point for the landowners to identify their priorities for registration. We have also been talking to the top 51 local authorities in terms of highest housing need to assess what support they need in the registration process and we’ve started four pilots with local authorities.

For buyers, our new digital service, which finds property information, makes it easier to find and understand the information they need to decide upon a purchase for a small fee. The property hunter can download a summary of information, including the address, title number, the owner’s name and address, the price paid for the property, whether it is freehold or leasehold, whether there is a mortgage on the property, and the lender’s contact details.

Even newer is our Local Land Charges Register. Local land charges such as smoke control orders and historic building listings are essential information for conveyancers and lenders but the ease and expense of searches vary widely across the country, depending as they do upon the efficiency of the relevant local authority’s service. Our new digital register, with its easy-to-use interface, will change all that by bringing the data of 326 English local authorities together in one place with consistent charging and search times.

The register was launched in July with Warwick District Council’s data the first to be available. We are now working with up to 26 local authorities in England to migrate their data in a phased approach this year and we estimate that during this phase up to 125,000 homebuyers will benefit from the new service.

When the prospective owner has made their decision on a property and their conveyancer has made all the relevant searches, the time has come to secure their loan. Our new service allows people to sign their mortgage digitally and has revolutionised the process. The borrower no longer needs to find a witness, apply pen to paper and send their signed deed by post. Instead they can view the deed created by the conveyancer by logging on at a time that suits them and confirm their identity using the GOV.UK Verify service. A code is sent by text to their phone which they use to confirm they are signing the deed in a single click.

We are applying this process to remortgaging at first, and several homeowners have now digitally signed their new loan deeds through our partnership with Coventry Building Society and Enact Conveyancing. Eventually, we expect, every lender will follow their lead.

Once the registration of the owner’s mortgage and property title is complete, we continue to provide services which help guarantee their security of ownership. Our Property Alert service provides individuals with early warning by email of certain activity affecting the property they are monitoring, such as a new mortgage being taken out. We are also developing another new digital service for protecting properties, to help owners protect their property, or interest in a property, by keeping their contact details up to date. The service will raise awareness of what we do and the potential implications of our being unable to contact an owner.

Overarching all of this is Digital Street, our ongoing research and development project investigating how technology can improve and ultimately transform land registration. It allows us to explore and visualise different ideas of how land registration might work in the future and the difference a digital register could make. A “hackathon” bringing together software developers and others in an intensive collaboration produced three working prototypes demonstrating how technologies such as artificial intelligence could be employed to everyone’s benefit. The research continues, and we aim to complete the first fully digital transfer of a property within a year.

We will now take our digital projects to the next stage of delivery, increasing the help we give to all our partners in our joint endeavours to improve the process of homebuilding and buying in England and Wales.

Graham Farrant is chief executive and chief land registrar at HM Land Registry.