Charles Arthur writes:
Like an embarrassed child trying to hide a broken lamp behind a curtain, Sajid Javid last Thursday, hours before the Easter break, sneaked out the news that the government wants to privatise the Land Registry.
Perhaps he hoped nobody would notice. In vain.
The growing number of people who rely on open government data to run businesses and understand what is happening to the country weren’t fooled at all.
Selling the Land Registry is foolish dogma that risks creating a private monopoly over what should be publicly available data.
It would mean squandering long-term income for short-term gain; putting vital information beyond reach of the Freedom of Information Act; and creating a future where we can’t find out how our country is owned without stumping up fees of unknown size.
The idea was floated to, and blocked by, Vince Cable in the previous administration. It’s still a bad idea.
Just ask John Manthorpe, the former chief land registrar, who on the We own it website says: “The Registry’s independence from commercial or specialised interests is essential to the trust and reliance placed on its activities”.
The Tories’ reason for the proposed sell-off is in the second sentence of the foreword of the consultation: “Reducing the national debt.”
It then breezily suggests that the Land Registry doesn’t have to be publicly owned “as long as the right protections are put in place, including keeping the statutory register under government ownership”.
Instead, it could “continue to evolve into a high performing, innovative business, delivering for customers and the wider market in a 21st century, digital economy”.
It’s the usual buzzword bingo.
Yet the Land Registry isn’t a burden on the taxpayer; it generates a profit, because everyone who buys or sells property is obliged to update it, and pay a fee.
More importantly, it creates a record.
“Enforcing land ownership is not just some random thing the state does, it’s the core thing the state does,” Francis Irving, a programmer and activist for open data who co-founded the prize-winning data startup ScraperWiki, told me.
“In a digital age especially, registry of land and boundaries is a key part of property ownership enforcement.”
Making land data available to everyone for free was a key change in South Africa after apartheid: it was recognised as important to make every citizen equal.
So why do the Tories want to put price and secrecy barriers in the way of people who want to know about the country’s ownership?
Just over 10 years ago, Michael Cross and I started the Free Our Data campaign in the Guardian’s Technology section, arguing that the fees being charged for access to non-personal government-held data – such as Ordnance Survey map data, Environment Agency flood, river and reservoir data, company filings, even tide times – were blocking the creation of a new economic sector: digital companies which could create value by putting different datasets together.
ScraperWiki is the sort of company that relies on such access.
The proposal wasn’t initially greeted with open arms.
But following Gordon Brown’s arrival in 2009, the ball began rolling: Tom Watson, then Cabinet Office minister, was an enthusiastic proponent of free data inside the government, and we then discovered that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, held the same view, which he put to Brown at a dinner.
It turns out that running a campaign gets easier when the inventor of the world wide web and the prime minister support the idea behind it.
The big breakthrough was in April 2010, when Ordnance Survey released a huge amount of data for free commercial reuse – an idea that would have been laughable four years earlier, when small web developers were fending off lawsuits over map screenshots.
Other departments followed.
Once the Environment Agency, which had resisted calls to make its data freely available because it was an “executive agency”, at arm’s length from the government, caved in, I thought the fight would be over.
It took the 2014 floods to start getting river level data for free.
However the campaign’s work won’t really be done until the government stops having stupid ideas about privatising the data which should be publicly held.
We’ve already suffered from Michael Fallon’s decision to sell off the income-generating Postcode Address File (PAF) database with Royal Mail – which means the government had to set aside £5m (but will need more) in the budget to create a “national address register”, with exactly the same information.
PAF is now an expensive private monopoly which many businesses have no alternative but to rely on.
By contrast, you can download the “price paid” data from the Land Registry going back to January 1995 for free, and use it for business.
That’s open data – albeit with a caveat: the address data is owned by Royal Mail, so there’s a fee payable if you try to attach addresses to the price data.
Another missed chance by the Tories, through Fallon’s selloff.
Sell the Registry off, and prices could rise; as a monopoly with inside knowledge it could crowd rivals out of the information market and refuse to license data.
The worst part? The Tories know this already. In 2014 they tried the same consultation.
The first question was whether people thought a “more delivery-focused organisation at arm’s length from government” would do a better job for customers. Answer: 91% said no.
So who wanted privatisation? As the campaigner Owen Boswarva has pointed out, not small businesses, legal representatives or councils.
It was big companies such as the outsourcing firm Capita, IBM, and private equity group Silver Lake Europe.
Are we really sure they have our best interests at heart? It’s certainly not clear the Tories do.