2. Making Land Visible: unlocking information

Many of the problems we identify in this report are caused or exacerbated by the UK’s exceptional lack of transparency on land. Communities do not know how the land around them is owned and controlled. Local residents find the planning process confusing and opaque.

And even experts struggle. For years, the UK’s planning and housing organisations have called for more transparency, without success.[1] Astonishingly, even repeated calls by Government ministers and Members of Parliament for better information on housing, planning and land have been unsuccessful.[2],[3]

Labour’s Green Paper, Housing for the Many, identifies this problem, calling for “fast-track reforms so local communities know who owns, controls and has an interest in land”.[4]

In this chapter, we detail the reforms needed, calling for:

  1. Clear, comprehensive open data on land ownership, control, subsidy, and planning;
  2. This data to be treated as a public good, not an asset to be monetised;
  3. Following the lead of the Scottish Land Commission, the establishment of Land Commission bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a remit to use this information to tackle the problems we identify in this report.

Clear and comprehensive information to support communities

We believe that citizens and their elected representatives have a right to know:

  • how land is owned, controlled, subsidised and used;
  • what land is owned by the state, and when it is being sold;
  • how planning decisions will affect their communities.

Who owns land

In England & Wales the only definitive way to discover who owns a piece of land is to buy the information from the Land Registry.[5] With 24 million titles registered, at £3 each, it would cost £72 million to reveal who owns these countries. It is often too expensive for a small housebuilder to identify the owners of suitable building land, or for a community to understand local patterns of land ownership. Public bodies must also pay to obtain this information.

However, large companies find it easier to afford these fees. This creates an information asymmetry between larger and smaller housebuilders, which has encouraged a concentrated and dysfunctional housing market.[6] As Shelter has shown:

The opacity of land markets… gives existing holders of land and well-informed market insiders disproportionate advantages over small businesses, entrepreneurs, local communities, public authorities and consumers…These barriers… help entrench market concentration in a small number of major house builders at the expense of SMEs, and hamstring local authorities’ and communities’ attempts to plan positively for their local areas.

It has also encouraged the development of new intermediaries such as land banking firms.[7] And the complexity of land data needlessly complicates the planning process. As Housing for the Many notes:

Land trading is one of Britain’s most opaque markets…This lack of information complicates land assembly, especially when a site has numerous land owners.

And as the Royal Town Planning Institute has commented:

Land registration is extremely important for a number of reasons, including facilitating strategic development, developing environmental management at a landscape scale, and transparency. In order to successfully manage land use we need to know who owns it.[8]

The financial barrier to information also enables international money laundering through the UK property market, especially in London.[9] In Chapter 3, we recommend taxing land ownership by companies based in secrecy jurisdictions, via an Offshore Company Property Tax, but such policies can be enforced only with more robust and open information.

While HM Land Registry has begun to publish some data on land owned by corporate bodies in England & Wales,[10] it has major exclusions,[11] is not open data[12], and cannot be properly mapped.

We call for:

  • The comprehensive and open publication of the full details of individual owners of land in England & Wales (with suitable safety provisions), as is the case in New Zealand,[13] including land owned by charities and trusts;
  • Compulsory registration of, and the open publication of, details of the beneficial owners of corporate bodies that own land (and of trusts where land is held via trust structures), to help prevent corruption and tax avoidance;[14]
  • Open publication of the full details of the price paid for all property, not just sales at full market value, to support transparency and better analysis of land values;
  • Free and open publication of the general boundaries of land titles, to widen access to information and enable geospatial analysis;
  • The production of new National Statistics relating to land ownership, control and use, to inform policy.

How land is controlled

Housing developers often control land by means of ‘option to purchase’ agreements: private agreements between the developer and the landowner. This makes it impossible for communities to know who controls the land around them and further contributes to information asymmetries. As analysis by KPMG found in 2014.[15]

Private ‘option agreements’ between landowners and developers mean that much of the potential development land is tied up in private agreements hidden from competitors, local residents and public authorities… This uncertainty makes development a risky business.

The Government promised in February 2017 to consult on private option agreements.[16] More than 2 years later, no consultation has yet been opened, and no action has been taken.

We call for:

  • A fully public register of charges and options over land titles;
  • Legal measures to ensure charges and options are not legally enforceable unless included in the register.

How land is used and who benefits

Owning land is a profitable business. More than £3.4 billion of payments from the Common Agricultural Policy were made to UK landowners in 2017, mostly as a direct subsidy per hectare owned.[17] Yet citizens cannot easily find out which land in their local area is covered by these agreements, or who is the ultimate beneficiary.

Citizens have a right to know why and how this money is entering their community. It is vital that farm payments become more transparent after Brexit. Chapter 8 discusses reform of farm subsidy further, but here we simply call for better information.

We call for:

  • Full details of subsidy paid on land to be published as open data, including the amount; its purpose; name of the landowner, beneficial owner, and recipient of funds; and the boundaries of the land covered;
  • More robust data to be gathered and published on the value of rental and leasehold contracts, allowing better analysis and monitoring of the rental and leasehold markets;
  • New legal measures to ensure that landowners do not receive public subsidy unless their land is fully registered with Land Registry, and that unregistered land reverts to public ownership if not registered by 2030.

Public land

Citizens also have a right to know what land is owned by the state. While local government spending over £25,000 must be published as open data, and procurement processes are rightly scrutinised, there is far less transparency around property disposals. This has helped enable a significant sell-off of government property in recent years, as we discuss in Chapter 5[18].

We call for:

  • Local Authority Asset Registers and property sales data to be published monthly as open data, to help citizens understand the property owned in their name;
  • Additional measures to increase transparency and oversight of sales of public land and property.


As we discuss in Chapter 5, the planning process is confusing and opaque, with an asymmetry between the information held by developers and communities. Planning portals are typically hard to use, and not designed around the needs of residents. As Shelter has identified,[19]it is:

…almost impossible for ordinary people to understand who owns and controls the land in their local area, fostering mistrust of developers and opposition to development. This is also a major barrier to communities wishing to bring forward Neighbourhood Plans.

While the government has committed to a register of planning permissions, its promise is vague.[20] We call for this register to be fully open, use a data standard, and include information on developers’ commitments.[21]

We call for the register to include:

  • Section 106 and other commitments in standardised, structured form, to help communities understand and negotiate commitments from developers, and identify developers who renege on promises;
  • Common identifiers for developers, to help residents identify other property built by the same developer;
  • Full geospatial boundaries of land affected by plans, to allow mapping and analysis.

Making information work for the common good

Given the many problems identified in this chapter, why is information on land so opaque? The reason is the approach of successive Conservative governments to public information: treating it as an asset to be monetised, rather than a common good. Land Registry was converted to a Trading Fund by a Conservative government, and is statutorily required to cover its own operating costs, which it does partly by selling data.[22] Similarly, Ordnance Survey became a Government-owned Company in 2015, and generates revenue by charging for its mapping data.[23]

This leaves both bodies vulnerable to privatisation attempts, and has contributed to the bizarre situation in which citizens and their representatives cannot obtain information on land and housing. Ordnance Survey, in particular, has historically claimed intellectual property rights over geospatial data produced by other public bodies,[24] affecting citizens’ ability to obtain information about their own country. Both Land Registry and Ordnance Survey have a long and proud history, and produce information of world-leading quality. This data should be treated as a common good.

We call for:

  • Land Registry and Ordnance Survey to become executive agencies of government, protecting them from further privatisation attempts, and enabling them to operate in the long-term interests of the country rather than short-term profit;
  • An appropriate portion of the £530 million that Land Registry now holds in cash and investment reserves (accumulated from transaction fees during the housing boom) to fund some of the initiatives proposed in this paper.[25]

An ongoing project: Land Commissions

Inspired by the Scottish Land Commission,[26] we call for similar bodies to be established in the other three nations of the United Kingdom, to put this information to work. We need to put land where it belongs: at the heart of political debate and discussion, through high-quality information, research and policy development. We propose that their role is to:

  • Report into the ownership, use and control of land. For example, following Scotland’s lead, to report into land ownership concentration in the other nations of the United Kingdom;[27]
  • Propose new policies on how to use land for the common good;
  • Provide scrutiny of laws and policies relating to land use.

We expand on this in Chapter 9.

Next: Chapter 3. For the Many, Not the Few: A Fair Price for Land »

[1] “We ask that you open up the Land Registry… The wider economic, social and environmental benefits of making land ownership data open could be vast… Having the ability to establish who owns the land and property around them is a vital tool for communities keen to take back control of their own destinies.” Open letter to Secretary of State, signed by Royal Town Planning Institute, Town & Country Planning Association, Shelter, Shared Assets, and others, November 2016.

[2] “In our view the data currently collected on planning permissions and their progress, and house starts and completions, is not sufficiently robust…. it is not possible from these data to identify who owns the land… The Government must ensure that the data collected by local authorities on the development pipeline are more thorough and reliable… We would expect this to be done by autumn 2017.” Report: Capacity in the homebuilding industry, House of Commons Housing, Local Government and Communities Committee, April 2017.

[3] “In the course of our work, we have been somewhat dismayed by the paucity of publicly available data on land holdings and build out rates… I urge Ministers to expedite this work so far as possible… [Dame] Kate [Barker] felt strongly that there was a need for better planning permissions data”. Independent Review of Build Out Rates: Draft Analysis. Rt Hon Sir Oliver Letwin MP, June 2018.

[4]Labour Party, 2018.  Labour Party Green Paper: Housing for the Many.

[5] Search for property information from HM Land Registry, gov.uk.

[6] The Lyons Housing Review, 2014. “Contraction over the past 20 years has been accompanied by increased concentration in the industry, both in terms of overall numbers of firms and of the market share of the largest players… During the 1980s there were on average 10,000 SME builders, and they delivered about 57% of all output from the sector. In 2013, this figure had shrunk by almost three-quarters to just 2,800 active SME builders producing 27% of new homes.”

[7] “The land market is inefficient and fragmented. It’s a bit like airlines before the internet was set up: it was difficult to know who had the best price because of the asymmetry of information.” Thomas Aubrey from the Centre for Progressive Policy, quoted in The modern-day barons: inside the murky underbelly of land promotion, The Telegraph, August 2017.

[8] Written evidence submitted by the Royal Town Planning Institute to the Public Bill Committee for the  Agriculture Bill,

[9] See for example: Transparency International, December 2016. London Property: A Top Destination for Money Launderers; Selling England and Wales By The Pound, a map and series of investigations by Private Eye, 2015.

[10] HM Land Registry: Commercial and Corporate Ownership Data and Overseas Companies Ownership Data.

[11] The government has proposed to publish the beneficial owners of overseas companies, but not before 2021. Information about beneficial owners of trusts is only available to law enforcement and tax authorities. Report on beneficial ownership registers, House of Commons Library, August 2018.

[12] The datasets referenced above are published under non-open licences which restrict reuse. To the fullest possible extent (e.g. except where additional restrictions are required to protect privacy), all data should include the appropriate common identifiers (e.g. company numbers, UPRNs), and be published as structured data in open formats under the Open Government Licence (OGL).

[13] We would propose case-by-case exemptions for individuals at risk of violence or intimidation, as is available for ‘persons of significant control’ on the UK companies register. See Protection for people at risk, Persons with significant control, gov.uk. New Zealand has published cadastral information and boundaries since 2011 under a Creative Commons licence, but requires uses to agree to a separate licence to access personal ownership information .

[14] This should follow international standards, e.g. using LEI identifiers for trusts that do not appear on a public register. See e.g. OpenCorporates’ response to the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Corporation (OpenCorporates, 2018) and Recommendations on beneficial ownership transparency (Transparency International, 2018). As per the recommendations of the Tax Justice Network and others, ‘ownerless’ trust assets should belong to the settlor for tax purposes: see A Wealth of Difference (IPPR, 2018).

[15] Building the homes we need: A programme for the 2015 government. KPMG and Shelter, 2014.

[16] Fixing our broken housing market, Government white paper. Published in February 2017, this states: “The Government will consult on improving the transparency of contractual arrangements used to control land. Following consultation, any necessary legislation will be introduced at the earliest opportunity.” No consultation has yet been opened.

[17] Defra, CAP Payments Search, accessed February 2019.

[18] While data quantifying the sale of public land is hard to obtain for the reasons discussed above, see for example The New Enclosure by Brett Christophers, Verso, London, 2018.

[19] Shelter, November 2016. Briefing: The case for greater housing market transparency.

[20] Autumn Budget 2017, section 6.3, gov.uk.

[21] For example, Brownfield land registers, gov.uk. The information required in these registers is specified in statute: The Town and Country Planning (Brownfield Land Register) Regulations 2017: Schedule 2.

[22] Land Registry Trading Fund Order 1993, legislation.gov.uk.

[23] Governance and legal status, Ordnance Survey.

[24]  Ordnance Survey challenged to open up its data, Guardian, March 2006.

[25] Financial statements, HM Land Registry Report and Accounts, 2017-18. (While clearly Land Registry needs to hold some reserves, we argue that its current cash ratio is more than adequate to cover its liabilities, and a portion of this could appropriately now be returned to taxpayers.)

[26] Scottish Land Commission.

[27] The scale and concentration of land ownership in Scotland, Scottish Land Commission.