Recent data from the Office of National Statistics and HM Land registry show that house prices rose 3% in the year to May 2018, relative to a growth of 3.5 percent in the same period last year. This is the lowest annual rate of growth since 2013, attributed due to declining house prices in London. The land registry institution besides playing a crucial role in well functional land markets also provides a useful measure to calculate house prices. HM Land Registry safeguards land and property ownership worth in excess of £4 trillion, including around £1 trillion of mortgages. The Land Register contains more than 25 million titles showing evidence of ownership for more than 85% of the land mass of England and Wales. Formal title documentation is an important institution and one that has bearing in a number of other areas. It would be useful at this point to sketch a brief history of the origins of formalised land registration and its evolution to the form it exists today.
Land Registration- A Short History
The history of land registration in the UK traces its roots in the UK with the Romans who introduced a form of land registration to England and Wales. Regular censuses were held, similar to the one mentioned in St Luke’s gospel, where the ownership and productivity of land was recorded. This formed the basis of a land tax called tributum soli. Interestingly, originally in English law, the only method to transfer freehold property from the seller to the purchaser was through handing over a piece of turf in the presence of witnesses. However, this method fell out after the Statute of Uses was implemented in 1535 which allowed conveyance by deed. The Statute of Uses made it compulsory to enrol deeds in the rolls of the county or in one of the courts at Westminster. This can be thought of as the ancestor to the current land registry system.
Subsequently, deed registries were established in various counties; Bedford in 1663; Middlesex in 1708 and Yorkshire around 1703. Later, the Royal Commission on Registration of Title was formed in 1857 which led to the generic idea of title registration finally coming to age. According to Sir John Stewart Wallace (Chief Land Registrar 1923-41), it was termed as the “the classic on which the system of registration existing in England today is founded”. It proposed a central registry in London with district offices with only freehold estates being capable of registration. But most importantly, the idea that it was compulsory for land to be registered was still not advised.
In a first, Sir Robert Torrens, the Prime Minister of South Australia, piloted land registration in that colony in 1858. The system he established proved to be a raging success and spread rapidly to much of the English-speaking world and beyond. In England Lord Chancellor Westbury finally got land registration onto the statute book by the Land Registry Act 1862. However, the 1862 Act proved faulty in some respects and these faults were remedied by a Royal Commission of 1870. This eventually led to the 1875 Land Transfer Act, which is in essence the system in use today. Finally, the 1897 Land Transfer Act ordained compulsory registration on the statute book.
An Interesting Connection: The Merchant Shipping Act and Land Registration
Just like land registration system in Australia spread to other parts of the English-speaking world, there are other instances when institutional changes within Britain also had impact on the system of land registry. Research has shown that the idea that registration of title would be possible gained impetus after the Merchant Shipping Act 1854, which established a register of title to ships. People rightfully questioned that if ships could be registered then why not land?