Who owns Scotland?

Written by William Peakin on 13 October 2014 in Inside Politics

For the first time in history we will know – down to the last square metre

It can be a vexed question: ‘Who owns Scotland?’ It tends to spark debate about vast tracts of land in the hands of the few, shaped in recent years by a shift in ownership from the great aristocracies to foreign, ‘absentee lairds’.

While the debate is a valid one, land ownership is an issue that touches a much wider sphere of interest, from ordinary households, to businesses, to public organisations. The lack of precise knowledge about ownership can be hugely significant, to families caught in disputes over the land on which their houses sit, to companies uncertain of the value of their assets, and to the public sector attempting to realise economic potential in their areas.

Registers of Scotland is now embarked on a major project, initiated by Scottish ministers and involving extensive consultation, which will ultimately map precisely who owns Scotland. Registers is the non-ministerial department responsible for compiling and maintaining registers relating to land and property and other legal documents in Scotland.

It has two main property registers: the General Register of Sasines and the Land Register of Scotland. The Sasine Register dates back to 1617, making it the oldest property register in the world. It’s a list of deeds with written – and, where old deeds are concerned, often very vague – descriptions of land.

The Land Register was introduced in Scotland as part of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979. It is a map-based, digital register so is much more accurate and easily searchable. The first county – Renfrew – went live in 1981, and over the following 22 years was rolled out across the whole of Scotland, with the last county – Sutherland – joining the register in 2003.
But properties currently only enter the Land Register when they are sold – so any properties that are inherited, or given as a gift, remain on the Sasine Register.

On 8 December this year, the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 comes into force. “It is the biggest change in conveyancing legislation in a generation, and realigns the law of land registration with property law,” said Sheenagh Adams, the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland. It also puts on a statutory footing many of the policies and practices the keeper has developed since the introduction of the Land Register in 1981.

A wholesale shift from the Register of Sasines to the Land Register will provide transparency and reduce costs.  An efficient, effective and indemnified land registration system has also been recognised by the World Bank as one of the most important factors in achieving economic development and growth. 

“A completed Land Register will be a national asset. It will provide clear and unambiguous knowledge of who owns land in Scotland, making it simple to work out who owns a property, what they own and what restrictions, burdens and securities apply to that property,” said Adams.

Local authorities, Police Scotland and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are amongst the public sector bodies that require such information; credit firms, lenders and utility companies are amongst the private sector bodies. It will also aid discussion and consideration of land reform issues.

One of the changes brought about by the 2012 Act is the introduction of new triggers for registration on the Land Register. This includes when a property changes name but without any monetary exchange – so gifted and inherited property will now be included.

It continues to be possible to register a property without any trigger through voluntary registration; but the 2012 Act brings in a new power of so-called keeper-induced registration, which allows the keeper to register land without waiting for an application. This means that, for the first time, Registers of Scotland can speed up Land Register completion by registering land unlikely to come onto the Land Register through other routes.

A series of pilots will run in early 2015 with a small number of organisations including the National Trust for Scotland and RSPB, the results of which will form the basis of a further public consultation on keeper-induced registration later that year.

Completion of the Land Register was one of the recommendations of the Land Reform Review Group. As a result, Scottish ministers have invited Registers of Scotland to complete the Land Register in 10 years, including registering all public land within five years; a much more rapid pace than was achieved in the 33 years since the register went live (the areas currently registered appear in red on the map).

The average number of first registrations on to the Land Register completed by Registers between 2003-04 and 2013-14 was 45,000 per year, with a high of 62,000 and a low of 24,000.  Completing the Land Register by the end of 2024 will require Registers to complete 113,000 property registrations each year for 10 years.

“This is a significant number of potential property titles to be registered,” said Charles Keegan, Head of Land Register Completion. “However, tackling titles in a systematic and organised way will make the challenge more manageable.”

At the moment, 58 per cent of potential property titles and 26 per cent of Scotland’s land mass is on the Land Register. There is, not surprisingly, a large variation between urban and rural Scotland and also between different towns and cities.

That stems in part from when an area came on to the Land Register, for example, the greater Glasgow area was the first area to become Land Register operational and has close to 80 per cent of all property titles registered whereas Edinburgh, which came on much later, has only 45 per cent registered. Also, if an area is predominantly rural, then properties transfer less regularly than in urban areas. And local market activity is a factor; some areas are more buoyant than others.  

More than 200 stakeholder groups have been encouraged to take part in the consultation, which includes written submissions, face-to-face meetings and workshops.

“Understanding who owns Scotland’s land is fundamental to underpinning strong economic development and business growth,” said Fergus Ewing, Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, at the launch of the consultation. “This consultation will develop our commitment to completion into a reality, with advice and opinions from those at the heart of the Scottish land and property market.”

Sheenagh Adams added: “Completion of the Land Register is hugely significant for the people of Scotland, and an exciting and challenging task for Registers of Scotland and our customers. We have already begun working towards the changes that will allow the Register to be completed through the 2012 Act. We now look forward to engaging with our stakeholders and together working out the most effective ways to achieve the very best for Scotland.”  

The consultation is at www.ros.gov.uk - electronic (PDF format) or written responses should be received by 4 November 2014.

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