Property data body is a very unconservative proposition

Analysis: Implementing the Tories’ plan for a comprehensive geospatial open database may be trickier than the manifesto writers suggest

The Conservative Party election manifesto classifies the plan for a "comprehensive geospatial data body" under "digital infrastructure", but if the concept is seen as merely a database-building problem it will fail. The plan touches on some cherished legal and constitutional principles and could prompt some passionate opinions - not least from home owners.

Deed plan mapDespite the tone of the document, there is nothing particularly novel about combining in one place data on the location, ownership and value of each patch of land. Most major economies have these cadastral agencies: a good example is The Netherlands’ Kadaster, which collects and registers administrative and spatial data on not only on property but on ships, aircraft and telecom networks too.

Cadastres provide certainty of title, underpinning investment and business, which is why they are often a priority in development plans for newly independent states, or countries emerging from dictatorship and war.

Unusually, the UK has never had such a national system. The reason is rooted in the ancient uninterrupted continuity of common law, as opposed to the continental civil law system created under the Napoleonic code. In England and Wales, many existing property boundaries were established long before the advent of accurate maps and may be defined by features such as the far edges of ditches or the position of fence supports rather than a line on a government map.

Uncertain boundaries

Notoriously, this is why Land Registry title plans, while based on super-accurate Ordnance Survey geospatial data, show only general boundaries. As anyone who has ever had a row with a neighbour over the upkeep of a fence will know, taking a magnifying glass to the felt tip line drawn on a property plan will not prove a thing in law.

Then there’s the legal complication that title to an estate is never absolute (unless you’re the monarch) but rather set out in various, often overlapping, ‘estates’, the best known of which are freehold and leasehold.

An effective one-stop property database would have to operate in four dimensions, recording the area and height to the title, as well as time-limited rights and estates.

The manifesto plan is to combine the "relevant parts of HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey" to create the new body. This is fine, and long overdue if comprehensive and open property data is to be made available for purposes like virtual reality and video games.

But when the new database is used in the property market itself - such as in e-conveyancing - the problems start to mount. In particular the leap will have to be accomplished by defining boundaries on a digital map. This will involve legislation, and no doubt a slew of legal disputes when 21st century geospatial data does not match with what has always been recognised on the ground. We can also expect some kickback on issues of privacy.

Northern Ireland precedent

Enthusiasts will point to the successful amalgamation in 2008 of mapping, land registration and value agencies in Northern Ireland. However, the task in England and Wales is larger in scale and complexity, and Scotland has a distinct legal system and a highly charged political debate about land reform.

As the Government found with its abortive half-baked plans to privatise Land Registry, the issue of property title raises strong emotions - especially among Conservative voters. The manifesto’s proposal for a comprehensive geospatial data body is bold - literally Napoleonic in its ambition. Whether it is achievable by any future Conservative Government is another matter.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0