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

We might not know who owns this. Image: Getty.

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.

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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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.