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The Holes in the Map: England’s Unregistered Land (whoownsengland.org)
122 points by robin_reala 42 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

I have to love this quote from one of the articles on this site.

Asked for his advice on how young entrepreneurs should succeed, the late Gerald Grosvenor once replied: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.” [1]

1. https://whoownsengland.org/2016/08/17/to-the-manor-born-mapp...

One thing this article omits, and I believe cuts the heart of a larger issue, is that the UK doesn't have a property or land value tax. They have a council tax, which is applied to a household, but there is no tax on holding onto parcels of land indefinitely. As a result, there is no need to know who owns these lands.

The UK especially needs a land value tax as they have one of the highest population densities in europe.

London somewhat inflates that density. In reality the UK has buckets of free space and doesn't desperately need to develop it all into housing.

That's not to say we don't have housing problems, but they are not rooted in "there isn't enough land".

I also don't think it quite gives the right impression to say "[t]ypically this land belongs to wealthy families, old institutions, the Church, or the Crown". I zoomed in on my house, and the three largest parcels of unregistered land nearby were a public park, a school (a Church school, but I don't think that's quite what people imagine when they hear 'land owned by the Church'), and one has a fire station on it.

"The Index Polygons dataset can’t be mapped publicly – I’ve written before about this data and the legal challenges involved in doing anything with it. But I think there is no IP problem with showing the holes in the map."

Wow, a figurative AND literal loophole!

The writing linked there: https://anna.ps/blog/how-to-use-land-registry-data-to-explor...

Interesting tidbit: "The government only released this INSPIRE data because of a European directive, which it tried to oppose."

Yay Brexit!

The fact that the state does not have to sanction land ownership is pretty cool. I did not even have this in my mind as a possibility of existing in an advanced country. I wonder what other countries have this situation. It goes in line with the idea of common law (law is just made of what people find customary and when there are serious conflicts, a judge with a jury sorts it out[1]). I learned about the Magna Carta in high school history in the US, but I didn't know that the anti-authoritarian roots in England were so deep. No wonder people who live in places with corrupt governments prefer to own land in England and other places where culture and law descended from English culture(Australia, Canada, the USA, etc.)


Sadly, this has little to do with an anti-authoritarian streak. It's mostly a combination of continuous property rights going back more than a thousand years (some of these unregistered bits have belonged to the Crown since the Norman conquest), and it being not-inconvenient for large landowners to be able to avoid scrutiny.

People with dodgy money would indeed like to buy English land, partly for the legal certainty you suggest, and partly because we've historically been very slow to ask from where you got it...

Its also I suspect a reaction against they naughty shit around expropriating land in the english civil war an dteh wars in Ireland.

The echo's of the ECW still effect politics in the UK today

In the U.S., the general rule is that you are not required to register (record) your property transfer in order to make it valid. Of course every state and county has its own rules.

There are also large lots in the U.S. that aren't owned by anybody. The last two subdivisions I lived in had tracts that were not owned by anybody, just wilderness.

> There are also large lots in the U.S. that aren't owned by anybody. The last two subdivisions I lived in had tracts that were not owned by anybody, just wilderness.

This interests me immensely, as I'd love to figure out how to take ownership of these "unowned" wilderness parcels, get some title insurance for them (if someone shows up with unrecorded ownership interest, there is some recourse then), and then deed them to land conservation entities to preserve them indefinitely. Small efforts in helping the US get closer to Europe as it relates to ownership of land where anyone can still walk, hike, camp on the land ("Freedom To Roam") [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam

Nice idea at the end:

> the government should require all land to be registered, with details of its beneficial owner, before it can receive farm subsidies.

They could simply say "register within 2 years or cede the land".

Indeed. Although maybe don't word it quite like that. The aim isn't to confiscate land owned by someone, just for them to prove they actually do own it.

It would kind of suck for the people who (inevitably) live on a piece of land for which the papers have been lost.

Hurricane Katrina exposed this sort of issue for people in New Orleans. Many residents couldn't produce documentation showing their ancestral homes belonged to them because there had been no impetus to maintain chain of ownership proof over the last hundred+ years.

Papers lost...means that land is lost. Unless you claim adverse possession. This land is now mine because I have here /worked it for xx years, in peace and no one else has claimed it. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/property/article-1348664/HOME-TR... But then it maybe tricky if you claim 451,222 acres or whatever.

That's probably why adverse possession exists at all.

I think it exists so owners develop /work the land. Use it lose it. Keeps them on their toes and tax coming.

Not much use to the state if I buy 10k hectares, leave as it is, and 800 years from now my descendants claim it.

How does one currently find the owner if he is not registered?

Sounds ridiculous but you basically can't. You can ask neighbours, try to look at historical maps etc. But there's no guarantee you will find the owner (if they exist).

If you can't find the owner that doesn't mean there isn't one. They can turn up at any point with a deed that nobody else knows about and only they have a copy of and say "this is mine".

Yes it's stupid.

I think the question is intended to be, "How does the owner presently receive farm subsidies if the land isn't registered and we don't know who owns it?"

They - or more likely a front company - claims the subsidies. If a form goes in and the claim looks plausible, subsidies are paid. I strongly suspect title isn't checked.

Interestingly, the UK has a "squatter's rights" law not many people know about. If you fence off some land and use it, it effectively becomes your property after a number of years if no one challenges you.

I've seen people use this to extend their gardens into common land.

12 years (or at least it was in the early 90s): we let a neighbouring farmer graze his sheep on some land we had, but had to ceremoniously turf them out every so often to reset any possible claim in law.

Note that legally speaking you didn't actually need to do that -- if they're there with your consent, it's not adverse possession.

That’s a part of the common law where it’s called adverse possession. In the US flavor of common law at least one can never adverse possess land owned by the government.

The subsidy recipient is not necessarily the owner e.g. following mutual agreement a farmer could graze their sheep on the neighbour's land which they don't own (because friendliness or usefulness or family history or specific allowances when the land was sold a hundred years back), and that land could be unregistered.

I expect the idea here is that the subsidy seeker probably has an idea as to whose land it is they're using, and thus could go ping the owner for registration so they can get their subsidies back. This is especially likely if the registration is easy and free: chances are the owner simply has not bothered registering the land because they have no need to and can't be arsed, being asked to by an acquaintance would be sufficient a motivation to eventually check in with the local authorities.

The land that the farmer is claiming subsidies for could be referenced to the land registry as part of the process.

Although a lot of farmers rent land to each other so that complicates things a little.

Only slightly. You can simply require that farm subsidies only go to land that is registered, even if the land is not owned by the person getting the subsidy.

I assume farm subsidy submissions register where the activity is occurring: Caroline Lucas MP has submitted an amendment to the current Agriculture Bill which would require that

> the land on which any activity is to be undertaken […] and for which the financial assistance is sought is registered with Her Majesty's Land Registry.

So farm subsidy submissions would be cross-referenced with the Land Registry, and any such submissions listing unregistered land would be rejected off-hand.

It is common to just attach a letter to the gate.

I think that's part of the problem, there isn't really.

I suppose you could squat on it, and wait for someone to evict you.

It is reassuring to see England beginning to catch up with the antipodes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torrens_title

The old Land Titles Office buildings were built as fireproof strongrooms, much like we build data centres today:


Unfortunately we are still suffering from Thatcherite ideology, which is dooming us to corruption: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/nsw/unauthorised-privatised-...

And woeful blockchainery: https://www.afr.com/real-estate/nsw-land-registry-to-test-bl...

Huh, I think I'll draw myself up a deed for the unregistered cricket field next to St. John's College in Cambridge. Nice area, you know.

Presumably the owner with the actual deed will object.

He'll have to prove that ownership, and I know a pretty good lawyer :)

I really, really doubt you know as good a lawyer as the actual owners of that land do. That's sort of the point of the article; the unregistered parcels are owned by the elite.

Also the land registry are pretty good about looking at the facts and making a reasonable decision (though you do have to pay them to come out and look at the situation)

A family member of mine did this when the neighbours were being somewhat contentious as the official map data showed a part of her garden to be their land but the land registry people simply remarked the boundary officially on the historical wall.

But watch out, neighbour disutes about land ownership are well known for being awful and they can run for years, draining the savings of both parties and lowering the value of both properties and causing significant hard feeling.

That wasn't what I got from it at all. Most of the patches I recognise were churches or Government buildings, roads etc. These aren't registered simply because they haven't had to be before. These aren't the 'elite', they're just big, old institutions. But yeah, while you could have some 'fun' trying to claim ownership of St John's College, trying to commit fraud in such a way is not advisable.

> Most of the patches I recognise were churches or Government buildings, roads etc. [...] These aren't the 'elite'

"Elite" qualifies the owners, not the property. The Church of England and the crown are most certainly elite entities.

Genius. At which point it becomes public knowledge.

Land as an attack surface.

I’m pretty sure the courts and police frown on forging documents to commit theft, even if the person you were attempting to steal from eventually prevails in court.

True - you'd have to be pretty keen..

Good luck taking on a Cambridge college in the courts...

Would a judge that had attended Cambridge, be deemed to be neutral enough to preside over a case involving it? That might throw a wrench in the works.

There are plenty of judges who didn't attend Cambridge - if nothing else, there are plenty who attended Oxford.

So if you timed it to coincide with the boat race....?

That's not your problem. Your problem is that some of the older colleges have vast holdings of property and they are very, very good at exploiting them. They know every trick in the book, not least because several chapters of the book are case studies of tricks pulled by the colleges in the past. Solicitors dealing with conveyancing around Cambridge hear that a college has land anywhere near the site and tremble with fear.

A centralised register of all property is not an unalloyed public good. Maybe hold onto your paper records somewhere safe, just in case of fire (or worse). https://web.archive.org/web/20070819153935/http://www.channe...

I used to live in Scotland, and when I paid off my mortgage I received "the deeds". I had very little idea what to expect, but it turned out to be a bundle of papers almost three inches thick, detailing every sale since the property had been built in 189x.

Having the paper-records was fascinating, and I seeing the initial owners staying there for 10-20 years, then a few periods where the property changed hands every 1-3 years, for ever increasing sums of money.

At the time I received them I was told "Yeah you don't need these, really, they're registered in the Scottish land registry". But when I came to sell the place - from abroad, no less - the first demand from the solicitors who I'd hired to manage the sale was "Please mail us the deeds".

I was almost tempted to keep them and say "Sorry, they're lost" to see what would happen. But selling a property from a foreign country was enough of a hassle that I didn't go through with it.

I do wish I'd taken photographs though, as the legalese was very nice to read.

Not sure about Scotland, but in England you need the deeds to definitively define the boundary. What you see on the land registry map is just an interpretation based on available data. They do not actually know precisely where the boundary is located.

Do they not have their own copies of the deeds? In the states, the local county recorder has all of that deed data on file, and when property is transferred a surveyor is engaged to confirm ground truth matches what the recorder states.

Your second sentence doesn't wholly align with your first.

Exclusively storing any data set in a single location is a bad idea, yes. But that's not an argument against a centralised register of all land ownership. My property is registered with the Land Registry but I keep a copy of the documents and my solicitor keeps the same in their files.

You’re right, that was an illogical argument. However, it’s important to recognise that the Land Registry as it exists isn’t just a public copy of the data (useful for research, public policy etc.) - it’s the single source of truth about land ownership. Once your land is registered, ownership disputes operate differently, whether you’re holding the deeds or not.

And I am not a lawyer btw so take all this with a pinch of salt :)

I'm surprised that bearer shares have been banned around the world for quite a while now, yet land can be held anonymously without issues.

This is pretty interesting. I zoomed in to my parent's place and it turned out that while their street has a known owner, the next street doesn't. I know their street is leasehold, at a cost to them of £14 per year.

So the lack of tax on land value is interesting here, because I would assume the next street is also leasehold - perhaps some of the missing information could be crowdsourced here, by those paying the lease, although would that fall afoul of some other law?

It doesn't quite break down per street - my house is freehold, but a house we are buying across the street for my grandparents is leasehold. The land was sold by the Church in the 60s to developers - that is leasehold, part was retained by the council as public green spaces[1] and later sold - that is freehold.

[1] though it was already paved over with paving slabs, so a bit of a waste of time

A former owner of our terraced property kept the title and sold the house leasehold. We bought the freehold recently (c.5% of the sale value) having been owner-residents of the property for some years; in theory the leaseholder could have turfed us out eventually, which is crazy IMO. It seems the leasehold system is mostly a way to screw people out of money.

Sometimes it makes sense, for flats/apartments say, but rarely beyond that. It has been used recently by house builders to gather rent from people who thought they were owners, basically add in quite considerable hidden costs. Leases get sold on and the new owners add considerable "maintenance" fees, like hundreds of pounds per year (for which they literally do nothing, except administer the charges).

There is increasing abuse of leasehold properties in the UK developers are trying to sell new build leasehold - with spireling ground rents that increase massively.


Yeah, I spoke to my parents about this today. Apparently the street used to be part of a sports complex, and was sold to a developer in the 60s or 70s. They recall being given the option to buy the lease for £400 in the late 80s, the same option being given to all other residents. Some residents took up the offer, others didn't.

They think the next street is possibly owned by the council as it has a few council houses on it.

This is great for the public, but extremely bad for individual privacy. In this case, the need of the few rightly outweighs the desire of many.

In the United States, about half of states allow for the Illinois (style) Land Trust. Property is registered as normal with the local recorder of deeds but the owner is a trust with the trustee typically being an attorney. Property tax bills are addressed to "Owner of Record", etc.

If there is a need to discover the true owners, you go to court and describe your need to a judge. If the judge agrees, a legally-enforceable order is issued which you take to the trustee and they then reveal the ownership/beneficiary structure.

The trustee is publicly registered, so you can accomplish most of the "I need to know the owner" tasks without knowing the owner. For example, I need a zoning change and must send notice to all property owners within 1 mile, or a tree on your property fell onto my property and destroyed my shed and you owe me money, etc. Send your letter to the trustee: they have a duty to deal with it.

It also seems to be a pitch to pay the government money :-)

Very nice. The maximum zoom in the map is a little too far out. Also this link does not work:


Oh and it is not useful for finding unregistered roads - it makes it look like all roads are unregistered.

The roads are not necessarily owned by the local authority, they just have the right to use it as a road.

Most roads started out as private land. At some point the road was adopted by the local authority. They can then define a highway boundary which is the land they have legal authority over. This can sit on top of existing ownership, who can retain the freehold.

You just see gaps because the owner decided to register the plot. The land registry will then try and guess where the highway boundary is, and sometimes get it wrong. But it is perfectly possible for the road to revert to the freeholder if the highway is removed.

I assume you're making reference to unadopted roads, getting adopted in, grandfathered arrangements etc.

A road getting built today by the local authority wouldn't have this arrangement would it?

The local authority would have to buy the land (or compulsory purchase) so it would be registered.

> The maximum zoom in the map is a little too far out.

The author said on Twitter that's deliberate to stop people over-interpreting the fairly crude geometries.

Surprising to see long stretches of the Thames riverbank are not registered. Often these have had public access but increasingly property developers realise the value of restricting that access, so it would be good to get ownership and access clarified so the local authorities are on top of this problem.

Boroughs aren't allowed to permit development that would make any of the Thames path private. The path isn't always the riverbank but close enough.

That's interesting, I didn't know that. Seemed like a few places round Hammersmith got blocked some years back but as you say maybe it's where the path diverged from the riverside more.

This looks as if it might be really interesting, but

  "Sorry, you need to use a newer browser to see the map"
and I'm using "Firefox Nightly 63.0.3 (64-bit)", built about a month ago. I'm pretty sure it has the features required..

I saw that message because I was blocking third party javascript, the site uses resources from mapbox.com

Works fine with Nightly 66.0a1

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