Scottish ministers are backing a project to set up a comprehensive land and property information
service for Scotland, to go live next year. This article explains what practitioners can expect
On 13 October 2015 the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, approved the report of the taskforce set up to investigate the options for Scotland having a comprehensive land and property information service (available at www.ros.gov.uk/about-us/what-we-do/our-business/publications). The purpose of this article is to answer some of the questions about the proposed new service.
What is it?
ScotLIS is an acronym for Scottish Land Information Service. It will be hosted and operated by Registers of Scotland. In essence, it will provide a one-stop shop for accessing information about land and property. Registers of Scotland will lead on the development of the new system as part of its digital transformation programme, which is focused on improving our registration and information services.
Why is it required?
Many countries already have such a system, for example the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and various states in Australia. Others are actively considering the creation of such a service. One of the main benefits is that those seeking information on land and property only require to go to one place instead of, as at present, instructing numerous searches or trawling numerous disparate websites and databases. It should be the “go to” place for all such information. As a result, there should be significant efficiency improvements to searching for information about land and property and there should be less risk of information about a property not being discovered.
How will ScotLIS be accessed?
The objective is for information to be delivered on a digital basis through ScotLIS. It will be able to be accessed by anyone, be they a member of the public, solicitor, surveyor or searcher. Information on land and property is currently held in a number of disparate sources and it is felt that there will be economies of scale and increased accuracy from information being accessible through a single channel – the information will still be held by the “producing” organisations responsible for it, but made available through a portal or channel.
At present, an individual can search in various public records in order to gather all relevant information on a property. Much of this information is public data. Alternatively, a professional searcher may be instructed to carry out the searches and package the information in a single composite search. In both cases, the final report is the result of public and other proprietorial data being harvested from the owners.
ScotLIS will ultimately be accessed by a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN) which will be allocated to each property. UPRNs are already being used by local authorities, emergency services and the Scottish Government, and provide the thread to join up disparate data sets. It is hoped that they might become part of a title number for properties registered in the Land Register, resulting in a more accurate, single access point to the service. Initially, people will likely search through a range of map and text indexes.
ScotLIS will provide a single point of access to land and property information via a portal, which is likely to be map based, although other searches, e.g. by address, could be possible. Where datasets have been matched to the gazetteer and contain the UPRN, this will enable linking of different information. Where this matching has not been completed, the linkages will be through location.
How will the information be collated?
The information that is being talked about here is largely public data which is currently held in various silos across central and local government. Much of this is held by local authorities. One of the first goals will be to ensure that all local authority data is held in the same way across Scotland so that it may be more easily accessed and analysed. This work is being undertaken by the Improvement Service. In essence it involves looking at the sort of information which is required, say in a sale and purchase transaction via a property enquiry certificate, and working back from that to ensure that all such information can be accessed in a uniform manner.
At present, searchers have their own systems for harvesting such data, packaging it in their standard format and re-charging the consumer therefor. Searchers will still be able to do that in future, but the important difference is that searchers, solicitors, and others wishing to obtain definitive information on a particular property, can obtain all relevant data direct from a single source themselves.
It is not envisaged that ScotLIS will be a single point of access to local authority information which, although forming part of a property enquiry certificate, could be accessed through a number of other portals.
Will there be an indemnity in case of error?
ScotLIS is not intended to alter the warranty that currently applies to certain types of land and property information. So where information is currently warranted by a provider, that warranty would exist in ScotLIS. Much will depend on the type of information being accessed. So, for instance, information from the property registers will be provided on the same footing as is currently applicable to Registers Direct. It is anticipated that all the information accessed through ScotLIS will be covered by a suitable indemnity insurance “wrapper”, the exact terms of which have yet to be discussed, due in part to the quality and lack of consistency of existing data.
What about the concept of open data?
Many public authorities subscribe to a policy of their data being openly accessible. That is in accordance with the EU INSPIRE Directive. Open data does not necessarily mean that the data is free, however. This issue will require to be the subject of further debate.
What will be contained within ScotLIS?
ScotLIS will be a cadastral map-based system. When accessed via a UPRN, or other means as mentioned above, a user will hopefully be able to view the property and see both the boundaries thereof and also the route of utilities, servitudes and other important pertinents. This should greatly enhance what a prospective purchaser will know about a property being marketed for sale and, as such, will be a positive development of the home report. Indeed, a development of the system would be for energy performance certificates and home reports themselves to be registered in ScotLIS on a property-specific basis. This would allow repairs and improvements flagged up in home reports to be logged which, at long last, would meet what was the principal objective of the Scottish Government’s Housing Improvement Task Force (www.gov.scot/Publications/2003/03/16686/19494). This will require discussion with other interested parties, however.
What is to be done now?
A project board has been created to take the development of ScotLIS forward. This is under the direction of Registers of Scotland, as envisaged in the report of the taskforce. The project board will consult broadly with stakeholders and external IT consultants, and consider international examples of what is being proposed. Discussions are already taking place with local authorities, Ordnance Survey, the Law Society of Scotland and Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). A prototype will be developed and tested. This will be an incremental process, with version 1 likely to be focused on the information required in a property transaction. The goal is to deliver improvements to the current system, which only those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo should be likely to object to.
When will it be available?
It is hoped that ScotLIS will be launched by October 2017 and that, interestingly, will mark the 400th anniversary of the creation of the Register of Sasines, the world’s first register of property deeds. The creation of ScotLIS will place Scotland at the forefront of land and property initiatives and will generate significant return on investment, for both the public and private sectors, while reducing time, cost, risk and stress to our citizens. It will provide improved transparency that, in turn, will result in more certainty and lower costs when buying and selling property.
What is next?
Current systems are less paper-based than they were, and solicitors have to key data through web portals into the systems of other agencies they deal with, such as Registers of Scotland and Revenue Scotland. Unfortunately, database formats and fields are anything but uniform, so the way data is stored in case management systems does not match the way the same information is stored in the systems of other agencies, making the uploading of data very difficult. The objective must be to have data entered once in a consistent format so that it may be used many times thereafter. ScotLIS could well be that single agency collecting such data. This would allow property lawyers to generate all relevant documents and forms in a consistent manner. That may well be what is required in an e-conveyancing system. Only time will tell.
Stewart Brymer, Brymer Legal Ltd and University of Dundee, and Iain McKay, Improvement Service