LAND JOURNAL

No easy fix in digitising the property market

Recent initiatives call for more digitised data to make property transactions quicker and easier. But digitisation is not a new ambition – so how can we speed up the transition?

Author:

  • Fiona Barron

19 April 2024

Sold sign houses in background

Several recent announcements assert that the UK has much to gain as a society from greater digitisation in the property market. At the same time, none of them claim it will be easy.

Last August, the Geospatial Commission report Building better decision-making: Location data in the property sector argued that: 'The achievement of the sector's economic, environmental and social goals, from boosting productivity and innovation to improving our residential areas and achieving net zero, rely on findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR) location data and innovative geospatial services.'

A month later the Digital Property Market Steering Group (DPMSG) met for the first time, bringing together more than 140 organisations from both the residential and commercial property sectors to encourage crucial digital transformation.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's autumn statement then pinpointed the need to digitise local authority property data further, allocating £3m in funding to do so. The statement also announced a Smart Data Big Bang that will explore opportunities to use new data powers in seven sectors of the economy, including homebuying.

The need for this extra attention and investment is indicative of the challenges to be overcome before we benefit from accessible, high-quality, authoritative data for everyone in property transactions, including surveyors.

Digital migration making slow progress

Although large-scale digitisation in the property market is in motion, the pace is slow. The first rumblings from HM Land Registry about digitising and centralising all local land charges registers in England and Wales came around 15 years ago, and the Local Land Charges Programme is now the largest digitisation project in the property searches sector.

At the time of writing, 89 of the 331 English and Welsh local authorities had fully migrated their registers to HM Land Registry. Searches from these councils can now be completed through dashboards almost instantly, with greater consistency and improved user experience. But there's still a long way to go – not least because data for the CON29 form, managed by planning, building control and highways teams in local authorities, remains largely paper-based.

Other digital programmes include the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities' (DLUHC) PropTech Innovation Fund, which has brought together local authorities and property technology companies to accelerate adoption of digital tools and services in the planning process. The aim of this fund is to promote public engagement in the process, making it more open and accessible.

Meanwhile, DLUHC's Digital Planning Improvement Fund is supporting 43 local planning authorities with £100,000 each this year, 'to support the adoption of modern planning practices within planning data, digital capabilities and development management software'. Last year, 19 authorities were funded by the scheme.

Anecdotal evidence from surveyors on this latter initiative paints a mixed picture, with some councils successfully digitising their processes while others are struggling, especially when it comes to IT interoperability and working with private-sector technology suppliers.

This feedback points to an urgent need for even more funding and heightened standards and consistency, to deal with the considerable procedural differences between planning teams, the effect of legacy IT contracts, and superseded software. If these problems are not dealt with, they could herald a patchwork quilt of different approaches across England and Wales, with planning authorities' systems and formats continuing to remain siloed.

Other inconsistently digitised datasets relevant to surveyors pertain to land referencing for compulsory purchase, as in the case of the HS2 rail project, and land management data that describes the biodiversity and nutrient neutrality of development sites.

I believe there is a huge opportunity to make more of the progress of the past decade and a half. Building on HM Land Registry's Local Land Charges Programme and the work of DLUHC's Digital Planning Programme, we need to improve the efficiency of conveyancing searches and make well-managed, authoritative data available to everyone who wants to access it. Only then can we create the modern homebuying and selling market we should have.

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Format limits value of existing data

The property market in England and Wales is siloed, with data used for specific purposes in specific processes by specific subsectors. Systems and data are not effectively shared.

This goes for planning, surveys, mortgage lenders, building control, estate agents and many other parts of the homebuying and selling process. Each operates independently, minding their own business and thereby limiting opportunities for wider efficiency, collaboration and improving the system for everyone.

In addition, a lot of data – particularly that held by local authorities – is still analogue. This limits its value and prevents it from fulfilling its potential to support the next generation of property services for the public.

For instance, most data that local authorities need to complete the CON29 forms as part of the conveyancing process remains on paper and microfiche.

The role of the CON29 form is to show information that might affect a property in the future, including tree preservation orders, prospective road schemes or parking restrictions, road humps or compulsory purchase orders. The questions in the form are set by the Law Society.

But given that conveyancing searches move at the speed of the slowest cog – and that is currently the CON29 – this is holding back advances made elsewhere in digitising such data.

'A lot of property data – particularly that held by local authorities – is still analogue'

Breaking down silos can build FAIR future

If we can overcome these hurdles, what is the potential prize?

Certainly, transaction times will be faster thanks to more FAIR, authoritative data, meaning more frequent and efficient property transactions. More low-cost, transparent, easily accessible transaction and CON29 information – such as planning data – could enable faster development and construction, benefitting surveying firms and many others in the sector.

Better upfront information for everyone working in property will limit the risk for buyers, conveyancers and lenders.

The development of the Buying and Selling Property Information (BASPI) dataset clearly shows a desire in the market for as much information to be made available as early in the process as possible.

Created initially by the Home Buying and Selling Group, the fifth iteration of the BASPI was published in March 2021 by a range of trade and representative bodies from the legal, surveying, estate agency and property management sectors, including the Conveyancing Association.

When launched in 2021, the Home Buying and Selling Group described the BASPI as the one source of truth 'when it comes to upfront information about a property – it is completed at the point of marketing and can be pre-populated by authority data'. For example, the form contains questions about previous disputes with neighbours, alterations to the property and any issues with securing insurance.

Meanwhile the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agency Team is improving the material information that estate agents supply when properties are listed online, including details of council tax, parking arrangements, building safety, outstanding works and more. 

All this can help buyers decide whether they even want to view a property, and reduce the number of sales falling through; the rate for this currently stands at around 25%. Happier buyers and sellers who aren't quite so daunted about the prospect of moving house may plan to do it again in eight years' time rather than 15.

The government's role in digitising land and property data remains crucial. From my discussions with others in the field, there is an appetite for the public sector to have a role in data regulation and standardisation, and in ensuring the use of unique property reference numbers (UPRNs) in transactions.

We have also found a desire for the public sector to ensure that data is authoritative, has suitable provenance, and follows FAIR principles. How these desires are satisfied is yet to be determined.

But what is clear is that the public and private sectors need to work together beyond the traditional silos to invest in data. If they don't, we are not going to make anything but incremental change at best.

Fiona Barron is chief executive at community interest company Land Data

Contact Fiona: Email | LinkedIn

Related competencies include: Big data, Cadastre and land administration, GIS (geographical information systems), Legal/regulatory compliance

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