Bryan Pickup, head of the property department, SJ Berwin
Innovative, forward-looking, dynamic. Isn't that how we'd like our clients to think of us? We can send information round the world in minutes and pride ourselves on our ability to find solutions to all the challenges our clients throw at us. Why is it then, that when it comes to the most basic part of a property transaction - gathering information about the property - we still seem to be in the dark ages? Hours are spent filling in local authority enquiry forms and writing letters, to say nothing of the time spent checking each individual authority's fees. Once all the forms have been sent it can take weeks for the results to come back, before we get a chance to act upon the information, which is what we are really being paid for.
At last there is a real chance for this to change, with the development of the National Land Information Service (NLIS). The ambitious aim is for a huge range of property information - including Ordnance Survey maps, the Land Register and local authority and other public records - to be accessible through a central hub. The core of the system will be the National Land and Property Gazetteer. When fully developed, this will give every property in the UK a unique reference number, recognised across all the databases linked to NLIS. The system will give access to high quality digital mapping, which should make endless copying and colouring a thing of the past. When we need to make enquiries about a property, we should be able to locate it through NLIS and then transmit all necessary searches and enquiries electronically, in minutes. Once NLIS is fully developed, the results will also be sent electronically.
A pilot NLIS scheme has been running successfully in the Bristol area, and practitioners in the City of London had a chance to see the system at a consultation held at Guildhall last month. The aim now is to widen public consultation on NLIS and run a much bigger pilot. A project like this will take time to develop, and there will be a long period of evolution. During the Bristol pilot it was not possible for search results to be sent electronically - but even with results on paper, the response time from local authorities was cut to a few days. Instant and reliable property information is still some way off, but at least it no longer looks like an impossible dream.
The potential benefits of NLIS for us as lawyers, and our clients, are enormous. The challenge is to make sure that it gets off the ground and develops in the ways which will help us most. Its application need not be limited to conveyancing; it will have an obvious role in, for example, marketing and environmental assessments. NLIS could play a significant part in changing the image of property from an asset which is slow and cumbersome to trade, to one which is far more transparent. As property professionals, we should be working hard to make NLIS a success, and to take property well and truly into the information age.