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Land information: a one-stop shop

13 April 15

A task force is to spearhead an all-embracing digital land and property information service that will give Scotland world-ranking status, following a conference on the potential for such a system

by Stewart Brymer

At a conference in Edinburgh on 10 March, Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP announced the development of a land and property information service for Scotland.

Keeper of the Registers, Sheenagh Adams, will lead a task force to develop an online system that will allow users to find out comprehensive information about any piece of land or property in Scotland with a single enquiry. The task force is to report by July this year.

Promoted by Unifi Scotland (www.unifiscotland.com), the conference heard that the current system, with data spread across multiple locations, was inefficient and costly, with the added risk of error or omission by those seeking to establish the correct picture with regard to a particular property. As Mr Swinney said: “Accessible information has real economic value. It can speed up and reduce the cost of property transactions and speed up the arrival of e-conveyancing.”

Cornerstone project

The task force will take forward these objectives by engaging with stakeholders and looking at comparative systems. Land information systems in countries such as New Zealand (www.linz.govt.nz) and Norway (www.ambita.com/en) have been given as examples.

A digital land and property information service was seen by many as an essential element of the Government’s commitment to see the Land Register completed within a 10-year period. In many respects, it is the cornerstone of that objective.

The present fragmentation (and sometimes also duplication) of information perpetuates inefficiency, hinders clarity and constrains or prevents the introduction of new, innovative ways of working. It also makes the task of examination of title and related environmental, planning and other such matters increasingly difficult and therefore expensive.

Examination of title is central to the sale and purchase process, and anything which can result in a more accurate investigation must surely be welcomed from a professional indemnity and risk management point of view. The changes, however, should not be viewed simply from the perspective of conveyancing practice.

International leaders

In Norway, all information relevant to a piece of land is accessed through the Infoland portal – www.infoland.no – created by the company now known as Ambita AS. It acts as a hub by which information is made available to the public, financial institutions, property professionals and other interested parties.

Lenders, in particular, make considerable use of the portal and the related e-conveyancing programme (E Tinglysing). The general public access Infoland regularly in order to get an up-to-date picture of their property and adjoining properties with regard to boundaries, passage of utilities and the like. All of this is shown on a cadastral map. Local authorities, who assemble much of the information, benefit from income raised through the sale of search reports. Put simply, the system works.

Norway is fifth in the World Bank’s rankings for the “Ease of doing business 2015” survey when it comes to registering property transactions. The UK as a whole is ranked a lowly 68th; there is no reason why Scotland cannot do significantly better.

We have the technology

So what next? What actions need to be taken by the Scottish Government, working with all other parties, to move things forward?

It is suggested that:

  • The task force should consider a business case looking at both the costs and economic benefits of a single portal/gateway and examine comparative international examples.
  • It should concentrate on creating a workable system relatively quickly, rather than a “super system” to do everything at once.
  • Information on landownership and land values across the public sector should be capable of being accessed through a common portal that can be scaled up as it develops – perhaps by way of a local authority pilot scheme. There should be an incentive for local authorities to participate.
  • The key is for the data to be input once but used, securely, many times.

Around 15 years ago the ScotLIS project explored the possibilities of developing a “one-stop shop” with easy, affordable access to a wide range of information about land and property. An idea ahead of its time, it failed because the available technology was not robust enough. In 2015, the technology is there and constantly improving: the original aspirations are now readily achievable. There is also a will to improve the present system and make information much more open and accessible.

Such a central resource would provide a launchpad for generating new economic revenues in Scotland. Full research has not been done in Scotland, but a “back of the envelope” comparison by Alan Moore, CEO of thinkWhere Ltd, suggested that, even on a conservative basis, the return could be 0.25% of GDP. That translates into about £400 million annually.

It is to be hoped that the conference proves to be a landmark on the way to achieving a single digital land and property information service for Scotland. The time is right to seize the opportunity and move forward with this agenda. If we get it right, everyone benefits – business, the public sector, Scotland and its citizens.

We have a great opportunity to build a spatial information system in Scotland that would be the best in the world. Can we build it? Yes we can!

Stewart Brymer, Brymer Legal Ltd and University of Dundee 

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