Data service puts property on the map

An ambitious computer-based project in Bristol should make life easier for all conveyancing solicitors, reports Bob Smith. Bob Smith is head of the NLIS Group at HM Land Registry.

Land and property account for more than 20 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product. Improving the management of these resources through the creation of a National Land Information Service (NLIS) will produce significant benefits for the nation and for individuals.

King William I recognised the importance of accurate, up-to-date information. In 1085 he established the first NLIS, commissioning a survey of all land holdings in England and their associated value in what was to become known as the Domesday Book.

Today IT has the potential to deliver benefits by providing the public and private sectors with fast access to land and property information. A major step forward has been taken in this area with the delivery of NLIS initiative’s first services.

Access to current, accurate information about the ownership, value and use of land and property is an essential tool for many economic activities. It can, for example:

facilitate the planning of major infrastructure projects, such as the high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel, enabling the identification of the most appropriate and cost-effective routes;

support insurance and mortgage risk assessment; and

simplify and reduce the costs of the conveyancing process, and consequently the cost of buying property.

Many of these public and private sector activities are currently hampered by inefficient access to information. Time is lost gathering and collating data and, as a result, investment costs and risks are considerably higher than necessary.

Countries such as Sweden, Canada and Australia have already demonstrated that major economic benefits can be achieved through the provision of online access to high-quality, commonly referenced land and property information – an NLIS.

In 1992 the NLIS steering group was formed to develop the NLIS vision as set out in the first report of the Citizens’ Charter white paper.

This brought together the major public sector managers of land and property information in England and Wales – the Ordnance Survey (National Mapping Agency), HM Land Registry (HMLR), the Valuation Office, and the Local Government Management Board (LGMB), as well as organisations outside government.

The initiative has undertaken a number of major tasks. One of the most interesting is the pilot conveyancing system in Bristol.

The Bristol conveyancing pilot went live in Bristol on 6 April 1998 and will run for eight months. The pilot service provides support to several Bristol solicitors through links to data managed by the Ordnance Survey (OS), HMLR and Bristol City Council.

In addition, requests for reports can be made, for example, to the Coal Authority and the British Geological Survey to enable property searches to be generated.

The development of the Bristol conveyancing pilot required the creation of close working relationships among numerous organisations within and without government.

The pilot has been modelled on requirements specified by a conveyancing user panel consisting of representatives from the Law Society, practising solicitors in Bristol and Land Registry lawyers.

The application is composed of two processes:

identifying the land and property to be conveyed; and

searching the relevant data repositories.

The property is located by use of a national property database – the National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG) – held at the OS in Southampton, and the OS digital map.

Solicitors can define the extent of the land in which they are interested on their PC screen.

Once signed on, users are presented with brief details of all outstanding applications – their “work in progress”. This list can be accessed at any time and expanded to give full details of outstanding or completed searches.

By selecting the “Add New” option, users are presented with the Property Location Form. Here a full or partial address is entered, the embryonic NLPG searched, and a list of addresses returned.

Having selected the correct address, users can then see it on an extract from the OS Land-Line map with the boundary from Bristol City Council superimposed (see screen shot).

This boundary can be amended if users want to submit searches for a different area than that shown.

With the property area accepted, it is added to the work in progress and the search requests can be submitted to the data providers. Most requests are accomplished by simply clicking on “Submit”.

All requests are acknowledged electronically, as are all but a couple of the results. Average turnaround is 4-8 hours with the longest taking approximately 24 hours.

Searches can be made to Bristol City Council, HMLR, the Coal Authority, the British Geological Survey, Wessex Water, Bristol Water, the Valuation Office (for council tax banding), the Lord Chancellor’s Department (for online access to UK statutes) and Companies House. An e-mail facility to all data providers is also included.

There is a full reference database supporting the application. It contains information about the conveyancing process and the data providers, such as contact details, fees and the services provided.

The next stage is to expand the geographical extent of these services and the range of businesses supported, through the use of public/private sector partnerships, potentially including franchising.

In the immediate future, NLIS will be a fragmented set of hot-spot information services accessed through a common e-mail system. However, over time these fragments will coalesce and a more cohesive national information service will emerge.

Market research has indicated that there is an enormous demand for NLIS. It has also revealed large potential revenue streams, not only from traditional users of land and property information, such as lawyers, developers and property agents, but also from new users in environmental management, insurance and financial sectors.

All the critical elements for success are converging – open government policies, availability of data and agreed standards, partnership business models, digital technology, the information superhighway, browser-based client access, commercial enthusiasm and increasing market demand.

A properly co-ordinated NLIS policy should be a key element in the “Government. Direct” initiative towards an e-mail-based society.

If we are to reap the economic rewards of that move, the Government has a responsibility to encourage the growth of the NLIS.