The NSW Liberal-National Coalition government has just passed new laws to sell the state’s Land Registry to private interests.
Land holding in Australia is a legally enforceable contract between individuals and government – usually described as The Crown to emphasise its ultimate sovereignty. Holders commit to use the land, to pay taxes due and submit to the authority of the elected government.
Accurately registering who owns which parcel of land matters – for individual financial protection, and for counter-parties like banks lending against the asset. Making titles more risky will impose staggering costs on the victims of fraud and misappropriation – and the banks.
Under Australia’s globally-admired Torrens Title system, government guarantees title against fraud and abuse without limitation. This will no longer apply if the register is sold to the highest bidder and privately provided. Consider the legal argy-bargy that will be certain to arise over any recording error by the private provider.
The UK recently offered its poor tax system as an excuse to attempt a similar selloff. UK land valuers obliged the conservative government to withdraw the idea, pointing out it would allow a private entity to adjudicate on the conflicting interests of sellers, buyers, lenders and neighbors.
What if the neo-conservatives actually wanted to hide who owns the land? As it is in the Scotland where despite strenuous efforts that began with the Registration Act of 1617 and accompanying Register of Sasines, the owners of only 26% of the land in Scotland have ever been identified. Ever.
Consider the implications of unrecorded title. It would exempt owners from public scrutiny, land tax, capital gains tax and the many pesky land use rules lesser mortals are subject to.
The risks and costs of, say, adverse possession pale in comparison to the profound personal benefits such a change would deliver to wealthy landholders able to hire some bovver boys to defend their interests.
The first baby step would be to de-nationalise the land registry – to put wealthy landowners on the road to the creation of allodial title.