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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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.