The Scottish Government has asked the Registers of Scotland to prepare to complete Scotland’s Land Register within 10 years and have committed to registering all public land within 5 years. 26 per cent of the land mass of Scotland is currently on the Land Register.
This is an ambitious target but the benefits that it will bring are considerable. Achieving this goal will ensure Scotland is a modern economy and an excellent place to do business.
Completing the Land Register will, for the first time provide a clear understanding of who owns land and property. This is consistent with the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda.
It will also enable citizens to obtain a much better understanding of boundaries with adjoining proprietors.
Countries from across the world are currently working on similar projects. Current examples can be found in New Zealand (www.linz.govt.nz) and Norway (www.infoland.no). Scotland cannot afford to lag behind.
But is this aspiration radical enough?
Property sales in Scotland
At present in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, purchasers, lenders and others interested in property have to search a wide range of databases and other sources in order to assemble a full assessment of the background of a particular property.
This is because the information is held in a number of different silos in public and private ownership.
Unfortunately, the result is that many purchasers do not find out what may be about to happen in an adjoining property which might have an adverse effect on the property about to be purchased or secured in favour of a lender.
This is because searches instructed during the sale/purchase process are generally focused only on the specific property being bought or sold, which could be damaging. There are ways to get round the deficiencies in the current system but why should the system not be more transparent – and cheaper – with less risk of adverse consequences?
The Home Report and Property Questionnaire have had their critics but they have had a positive effect overall when looked at from the perspective of the house buying public.
Scots now have more information on properties in which they are interested which therefore allows them to make an informed decision as to a potential purchase.
In addition, private search companies and a wide range of businesses involved in infrastructure development work spend a very significant amount of time and effort sourcing land and property information from a wide range of public bodies to identify potential sites for development, to produce environmental impact assessments or produce design proposals.
The absence of a coherent national land and property information service not only increases the personal, business, economic and environmental risks but is leading to significant inefficiency and waste of resources that could be directed towards greater innovation, added economic value and improved public sector efficiency.
Making the system better
More can be done however and we, in Scotland, are not far away from being able to achieve that objective.
Projects such as the Address Database project – www.onescotlandgazetteer.org.uk – have focused on each property having a Unique Property Reference Number in order to uniquely identify it and thus enable relevant information to be more easily linked and accessed by people and businesses.
This has established a base level on which a modern digital database of information on Scotland’s land and property can be built.
There is a significant opportunity for a world-leading digital information database covering all aspects of land ownership to be created in Scotland, building on the good work already done by Registers of Scotland, local authorities and the Ordnance Survey.
15 years ago, an attempt was made to do just this when a group of interested organisations developed a prototype of a Scottish land information service “ScotLIS”.
ScotLIS was a project which explored the possibilities and opportunities of developing a ‘one-stop shop’ with easy and affordable access to a wide range of computer-based information about land and property.
Although ScotLIS failed because the available technology did not support the business requirement, the technology has now forged ahead to the extent that the original aspirations are now readily achievable.
How do we do this?
The Improvement Service has undertaken a lot of essential ground work in this area already. It currently has a proposal for local government to take a collective approach to spatial information management (land, property and environmental) being considered which will meet any statutory obligations such as the INSPIRE directive and well as making a wealth of information openly available. This data is currently held in silos in each council and the proposal is to create standardised datasets at a Scottish level and to make this openly available to all.
Likewise, Registers of Scotland is committed to a digital roadmap as part of Digital First – www.digitalscotland.org – so that the information that it holds can be accessed more easily.
There is now an excellent opportunity is for Scotland to coordinate these efforts and collaborate with the private sector, lenders and professional member organisations involved in the house purchase/sale process. Indeed, the solution could be applied across all property sales/purchases.
That contribution is currently gathered in the form of Unifi Scotland (www.unifiscotland.com) Unifi is a Think Tank whose members meet to consider ways in which the present system can be improved. Unifi is of the opinion that an opportunity has arisen for public and private organisations to work together to provide a national solution to improving Scotland’s land and property information management system.
Lessons from Norway
In Norway, the government has gone down the fully-digitised one-search route and all relevant information is now held on a national database which is now accessed through the all-in-one portal called Infoland – www.infoland.no Infoland was created by the Norwegian Land Information Company – now known as Ambita AS – www.ambita.no Ambita is a company that is wholly-owned by the Norwegian Department of Trade, Industry and Fisheries.
Norway, a country of five million people, was ranked 6th in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business 2015’ survey, two ahead of the UK. However when matched to the ‘Registering Property’ index, Norway is ranked 5th, while the UK sits at a lowly 68th.
Most of Norway’s municipalities make the spatial, land and planning information that they hold on properties in their region available through Infoland. This is made available to the public, banks, financial institutions, property professionals and other interested parties. Infoland acts as a hub where queries are made and information is provided. The municipalities who are fully automated and digitised make information available instantly. However, in a developmental stage, fully digitised information is not a pre-requisite to harvesting efficiency gains through Infoland. Those who are not fully automated receive queries through the system, but provide the information through the post. In this way, access to information is swift and is available through a single search regardless of the current level of development, thus ensuring revenues as the process towards digitisation advances.
Most of Norway’s municipalities have transferred information that they hold on properties in the region to Infoland where it has been digitised and made available to the public, banks and other interested parties.
A basket of searches that are required for house purchase transactions can be purchased from Infoland rather than in a number of different purchases. This means that prospective purchasers and lenders have detailed information more easily and quickly available them.
The net funds raised from the sale of search reports due is remitted to the Municipalities and other data owners. Municipalities have seen an increase in their net receipts from the provision of such information over the years since the scheme was launched, both in efficiency gains and profits, as well as a deeper understanding of what private and public sector need in the shape of optimal land information from their region. This demonstrates what could be done in Scotland.
The benefits of a coherent, trusted and consistent set of master information on land and property in Scotland are considerable – not least because it should make the sale/purchase/lending process more accurate and (it is to be hoped) cheaper on a per transaction basis. These benefits alone, it is suggested, are sufficient for this aspiration to be investigated further in the hope that the vision can become a reality.
Enabling access to core land and property information in one place where it can be made available to all is a key component of the Community Empowerment Bill introduced to the Scottish Parliament in June of this year.
Most countries that are upgrading of the registration processes are taking the opportunity to go a step further and fully digitise all information on land and property. A recent example is the New Zealand Land Information Service – www.linz.govt.nz
In Ireland, a Land and Property Information Service was created as a means of improving access to land and property information and in Australia, where there are a number of initiatives designed to introduce a digital property transfer process (see www.pexa.com.au), the Public Sector Mapping Agency is an interesting example of a public/private initiative – see http://www.psma.com.au/
Who supports consolidation and why?
There already exists a broad cross-selection of bodies interested in the reform of the land system in Scotland and how it is controlled and accessed. The following intimations of support have been received to date:
“Information on Scotland’s land and property should be more readily available to citizens in order to ensure a fairer system of land transfer. We have an opportunity to build a system that will be one of the best in the world.”
Alistair Morris, The President of The Law Society of Scotland
“Better access to information on land and property is good for surveyors, solicitors and the public generally. RICS was an advocate of the original ScotLIS project and is fully behind this initiative.”
Sarah Speirs, Director, RICS Scotland
“The Council of Mortgage Lenders believes that making the core information on land and property readily available in one place should make matters more transparent for both lenders and their customers. The present system is in need of overhaul and in our view what is being proposed would allow lenders to carry out a more accurate risk assessment of the property/land over which they are being granted security. This should provide lenders with greater confidence.”
Kennedy Foster, CML Scotland
“The Improvement Service is wholly supportive of a service which will provide a one stop shop for land and property information which will reduce property transaction costs and lead to greater transparency around land and property in Scotland. We also welcome the public and private sectors working together to achieve these aims.”
Colin Mair, Chief Executive, The Improvement Service
“A National Land and Property Information Service would be of benefit to local and national government. Local Authorities hold a lot of useful data. The challenge is not the lack of data, but the lack of data made relevant, understandable and easily accessed by the citizen and all other interested parties.”
Angela Leitch, Chair, SOLACE
What needs to be done now?
Our policy recommendations for the Scottish Government are that it should:
- Introduce measures with the aim of making information on land, its value, ownership and use easily accessible to members of the public and businesses at low cost.
- Ensure that information on land ownership and land values held across the public sector (eg by Registers of Scotland, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Assessors and Local Authorities) is capable of being accessed through some common portal/gateway. It is worth noting that all the information exists but it is difficult to access because it is in many disparate places. We are not advocating the capture of additional information but want to ensure that is access and publication are not constrained by individual organisational barriers.
- Consider appointing someone answerable to the Deputy First Minister (Finance) to develop, lead and deliver the project so as to avoid individual organisations seeking to protect their own projects rather than something which will improve the Scottish economy and make Scotland a leader in the field of the management and use of spatial information technology.
- Establish a coherent, strategic spatial data policy that encapsulates public, commercial and citizen interests and is directed towards improving the social, environmental and economic well-being of Scotland.
- Instruct an analysis of cost savings and revenue potential of a National Land and Property Information Service for both the private and public sectors as well as for citizens. This may be in the form of an Economic Benefit Analysis that looks at market demand, the key data custodians, the information supply chain and the opportunities to develop new, added value information products and services such as a Standardised Property Enquiry Certificate with input from CML Scotland and others.
- Consider a business case and requirements definition for a portal/gateway and consider comparative international examples. This might involve some form of innovation funding to undertake an independent feasibility study into the business and technical options to deliver a coherent land and property data infrastructure for Scotland.
- Clarify funding for Completion of Land Register.
- Consider business model options and governance arrangements for a Land and Property Information Service that will maximise the contribution of key public sector players such as SOLACE, SOLAR, SCOTS and Heads of Planning, reinforce delivery of key policy initiatives such as Completion of the Land Register, improve collaboration within and between local and central government data custodians and capitalise on private sector involvement to drive innovation and opportunity.
- Consider creating a test environment for a pilot in a Local Authority where a Scottish Infoland or ScotLIS can be trialled based on studies from Norwegian Municipalities. This would be tailored to Scottish demands.
In summary, it is suggested that a real opportunity currently exists to create a National Land and Property Information Service in Scotland which would be the envy of other countries. This can be achieved by building on the excellent work that has already been done and pulling that together in one place. There is broad support among the various stakeholders and a will to deliver a project that will benefit citizens and local and national government alike.
The members of Unifi Scotland are keen to support the initiative which they believe will have a marked effect on the processing and security of property transactions in Scotland.