Who owns Britain? Biggest landowners agree to reveal scale of holdings

Under the ambitious scheme sponsored by the Government, some of the country’s oldest and most secretive families are to reveal the full scale of their private estates. The Queen and the Prince of Wales are among the biggest landowners who are co-operating with the Land Registry’s attempt to plot every acre of land in England and Wales.
English aristocratic families, including those of the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Bedford, who between them own 70,000 acres in the Home Counties, are also believed to have given details of their land ownership.
Ministers have given officers for the Land Registry permission to consult on tightening the rules for compulsory registration, which they hope will lead to all land in England and Wales being registered.
Land that has not been sold or mortgaged does not have to be registered and so many landowners whose property has not changed hands for a hundred years have been able to keep their ownership secret.
Since the time of William the Conqueror there have been various attempts to write a full account of the ownership of Britain. But it was not until the 19th century that the state began to take a serious interest in collating the details of the ownership of property.
Despite the introduction of a series of new registration laws, millions of titles to land have escaped legal registration – much of this property is owned by the aristocracy and those families who were once referred to as the landed gentry.
The Land Registry, a government agency, intends to finish the job started by William the Conqueror. By adopting a combination of compulsory and voluntary registration systems, the Land Registry hopes to avoid having to implement a fully mandatory scheme to force all landowners to register their titles and their legal interests.
Peter Collis, the chief land registrar of England and Wales, said he believes up to four million land titles remain unregistered. „We have managed to increase registration by 12 per cent [in the past five years] and so are reaching our targets. But it may be that we can’t persuade some landowners of the benefits of registration. Then we have to ask what should we do in that situation.“
Mr Collis said the registry had taken legal advice about bringing in legislation to force all landowners to register their land. But he said: “ It would be difficult to see how you could make this human-rights compliant, especially if the sanction would be the confiscation of the land from the owner.“
The new proposals would only extend compulsory registration to cases in which trustees of either land or property were newly appointed.
Mr Collis said the registry had successfully persuaded some of Britain’s biggest landowners, including the National Trust, the Church of England, some Oxbridge colleges, the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence to surrender details of their land. Nevertheless, it is thought there is a stubborn rump of refusnik landowners who may find it difficult to prove they have title to property or believe the land is subject to a competing claim from another family member. They will want to avoid public registration. Other landowners, particularly very private celebrities or aristocrats, may not want to give details of their properties and land which would be made available on a public register.
The register not only reveals the owner of the land but also shows details of registered mortgages and other financial burdens, covenants and easements which benefit or adversely affect the property. When Tony and Cherie Blair bought their £3.6m home in Connaught Square, London, two years ago, details of their mortgage were only made available through inquiries to the Land Registry.
But Mr Collis says landowners need to weigh up the perceived threat to privacy or a possible challenge to title against the greater advantages of registration. „Once the land is registered, it means the title is guaranteed and the land is legally protected. Having all land registered will bring a comprehensive database to the property market that benefits everyone.“
Now officers working for the registry have begun targeting groups of unregistered landowners by offering them incentives to encourage voluntary registration. Those registering land for the first time are being given a 25 per cent discount on fees.
While most of urban Britain has been registered, countryside ownership remains largely unmapped. Without a comprehensive database of land ownership, the Land Registry will be unable to support its online search service, which it is planning to roll out across the country.
The Land Registry in England and Wales is the world’s largest property database, helping to underpin the economy by guaranteeing ownership of many billions of pounds worth of property. As the government department responsible for maintaining the Land Register for England and Wales, its mission is to provide the world’s best service for guaranteeing ownership of land and facilitating property transactions.

The biggest estates

The current Duke of Norfolk is His Grace Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk, who succeeded his father, Miles Stapleton-Fitzalan-Howard, 17th Duke of Norfolk, in 2002. These Catholic estates run to 16,000 acres mostly around Arundel Castle and are the largest in Sussex. The Duke owns a further 30,000 acres outside of Sussex. They have never been documented. A spokeswoman for the Duke said that he was co-operating with the Land Registry but was unable to say how much work had been done in registering the land.

The Duchy of Lancaster traces its origins back to 1265, when King Henry lll made a grant of land to his son Edmund. Valued at around £341m, the estate is held in trust for the sovereign of the day in his or her role as Duke of Lancaster. Its 18,700 hectares across England and Wales range from the Savoy Estate in London to the Goathland Estate in Yorkshire and include urban developments, historic buildings, farmland and areas of natural beauty. The Duchy expects to register all the land within the next two years. Completed registration includes the Salwick Estate and the Myerscough Estate (1,100 hectares). Vyrner Speakman, register development manager at Land Registry’s Lancashire office, has worked with the Duchy of Lancaster for several years. „I had suggested a method of dealing with encroaching registrations on the tidal creeks to the Duchy and they were very keen to explore it,“ she says. „They were also receptive to the idea that registration would better protect their interests.“

Durham Cathedral and its holdings are the latest properties to be mapped under the registration programme. The dean and chapter own 2,470 acres across the diocese, between the Tees and Tyne rivers, including the prime cathedral site on Durham’s central peninsula. Although ownership has remained largely unchallenged since the building of the cathedral more than 900 years ago, the dean and chapter has decided to register with the Land Registry. The chapter land agent, Jon Williams, said: „Durham Cathedral has owned property for hundreds of years. While we don’t have any doubt about the ownership of the land, this is making it watertight and ensuring its availability for future transactions, not that the dean and chapter is preparing any particular sale.“

The Duchy of Cornwall’s 54,764 hectares are spread across 23 counties, mainly in the south-west of England. Created in 1337 by Edward III for his son and heir, Edward the Black Prince, the Duchy provides a private income for the Prince of Wales (last year £14.1m). Tax is paid on a voluntary basis. Its assets are currently valued at around £561m. The voluntary registration of the estate has been under way since 2003 and is more than half completed. Dartmoor was fully registered in summer 2006, by which time the Isles of Scilly were almost complete. The Duchy of Cornwall declined to say how much of the estates had been registered or how much Prince Charles intended to register.