Digitisation of land and property data

Jan Boothroyd, CEO at Land Data, explains how the National Land Information Service (NLIS) has modernised the conveyancing search market. Now every local authority in England and Wales is connected to NLIS

E-conveyancing, the process of streamlining and simplifying the conveyancing process electronically, has met with many obstacles over the years, some technological, others cultural and more recently economic. But one area where successful progress has been made and where the benefits of technology are particularly strong is in electronic conveyancing searches.

The digitisation of land and property data from source data providers direct to a conveyancer’s desktop, not only brings a multitude of benefits to the conveyancer, but delivers a confidence boost to both lenders and consumers too.

The importance of conveyancing searches

The Council of Mortgage Lenders’ instructions to solicitors confirm "all usual and necessary searches and enquiries" are required in a purchase conveyancing transaction.

Conveyancing searches give crucial information regarding the property to be purchased. Some examples may include conservation and tree preservation orders, whether or not the road serving the site or property is a publicly adopted highway, whether there are outstanding financial charges or planning enforcement notices and whether there are any mineshafts in the immediate vicinity.

Conveyancing searches can take many forms, from the standard enquiries raised by a conveyancer with a local authority, to drainage and water searches, coal mining searches, Land Registry searches through to more exotic searches such as Williamson Tunnel searches (in Liverpool), Cornish Tin and Cheshire Brine.

NLIS electronic searches reduce risk

Purchasing property search data direct from a source you can trust reduces risk and provides lenders with the reassurance that the quality of the searches can be relied upon and that the data returned is current and complete.

Electronic conveyancing searches ordered through the National Land Information Service (NLIS) are classified as ‘official’ searches because they are ordered and supplied directly from and by, source data providers such as the local authority, Land Registry, the Coal Authority and some water authorities. The search contents are expertly compiled and all statutory indemnities are preserved and transferred to end customers, so consumers receive a high level of protection at a competitive price.

With NLIS local authority official searches, both the conveyancer and the consumer have the additional piece of mind that local authorities have not only the power to rectify and remediate but that they will still exist in 10, 20 or 30 years time, should a search issue arise – a valuable asset in these difficult times.

A modern day myth would lead us to believe that local authorities do not carry insurance, but they do of course. However, it is worth pointing out that the insurance cover attached to local authority searches does not expire on the day of completion; replies are covered for many years, providing the purchaser with an assurance that there will be no nasty search related surprises after exchange of contract.

The birth of NLIS

NLIS provides a single point of electronic access to a variety of sources of land and property information across the whole of England and Wales. NLIS emerged as a result of the Central Local Information Age Government Concordat signed in 1997 between the government and the Local Government Association (LGA) and it began trials in the late 1990s.

The NLIS service, a cornerstone of the e-government programme, was designed to work with and encourage modernisation within local authorities. NLIS went live in 2001 offering a secure gateway to authoritative data providers and today is the only contractually regulated service of its kind, offering the highest standards of property search accessibility in the market.

The NLIS hub (or gateway), is linked to all of the relevant official data providers, the NLIS licensed channels, of which there are currently three, market the NLIS service (and data provider products) to conveyancing professionals and other consumers wishing to buy land and property information. The NLIS channels compete against each other in the electronic search supply market by selling the benefits of their added value services such as electronic case management interfaces. The channels provide the ‘front of house’ ordering capability, whereas the NLIS hub acts as the ‘post-box’ channelling the data requests to the correct data provider.

NLIS - the only secure and regulated portal in the market

Over 20 million NLIS searches have been processed since the launch of NLIS in 2001. Overseen by Land Data, NLIS is the only regulated electronic land and property information process in the market. Land Data regulates the activities of the NLIS hub and channels against their contracts in order to protect the users, clients and the data providers; this creates an environment which is secure, robust and fully supported. Using NLIS, conveyancers can demonstrate solid auditing and process control, which is another attractive benefit for lenders.

The NLIS environment

The NLIS hub sits at the centre of the NLIS infrastructure. It directs requests received from the NLIS channels (on behalf of their customers, usually conveyancers) for data to the relevant data provider, Land Registry, coal, water or local authorities. The NLIS Hub interfaces directly with the Local Land Charges (LLC) section within each local authority submitting to them electronic requests for information. The local authority electronic response is forwarded to the NLIS channels, or direct to the customer, upon completion.

How the search market has changed

A long and often turbulent history surrounds local authority searches. During the late 1980s local authorities struggled to provide official LLC1 and CON29 searches within a reasonable turnaround time. Many authorities worked using manual LLC registers and these were time consuming to search and often required additional research in terms of the need to check supporting maps and documents.

The CON29 questionnaire, which requires the input of departments such as housing, highways, planning, building control, legal, environment and planning enforcement, was often dealt with via a manual process which was fraught with delay and the problems associated with paper collation.

The organisational difficulties faced by local authorities helped spawn the growth of private search firms and data warehouse models. Private search firms would send representatives into individual local authority offices to inspect the LLC register on a daily, if not hourly basis. This remains today an inefficient manual process.

NLIS was to act as the catalyst towards modernisation in the land and property area. As might be imagined, the procurement of data capture contracts and software and hardware purchases by individual local authorities took time. NLIS offered an electronic interface to conveyancers from day one, but it took considerably longer for NLIS to be able to offer local authority electronically sourced and delivered information, at a price and delivery time that the market envisioned, when NLIS launched.

Local authorities have responded well to the challenge to engage electronically and although the modernisation road, for both local authorities and the NLIS partners, has been extremely long and fraught, the benefits are now being delivered and local authorities are seeing the fruits of their labours. Instead of routinely taking 10 days plus to process their searches, now the average turnaround time for a LLC1 and CON29R is less than five days.

CON29 enquiry fees have similarly fallen from an average of £114.51 in May 2006 to £81 in September 2011 and further reductions are predicted. End to end searching in some authorities takes mere minutes and the process benefits are tangible to both the local authority and to the conveyancer who can save both process time and money.

Today every local authority in England and Wales connects electronically with NLIS, just under half of all local authorities connect to NLIS at level 3 (its highest level of automation) and 86 per cent of them now return the search data electronically too. Over 15,000 conveyancing solicitors have made the move to ordering NLIS electronic searches.

The conveyancing search market in the future

The NLIS network can already obtain searches from key data providers on an ‘as required’ basis and this deals almost instantly with the problems associated, in a slow moving market, with aging information. The speed with which information can now be obtained through NLIS means that the purchaser’s conveyancer can order the data when required, without causing any unnecessary delay to the chain or conveyance. The Law Society favours this option as it supports a return to the principle of “caveat emptor”.

Our vision of the future is one with greater emphasis on the electronic delivery of information, where speeds will be faster, costs lower and where data and quality standards will be driven even higher. The arrival of alternative business structures and ‘Tesco law’ will cause conveyancing firms to revaluate and examine their current processes. This may result in more tailored specialist services being developed but processes will also undoubtedly be streamlined too.

Land Data believes that the benefits of the NLIS robust and secure ordering and delivery infrastructure is proven and, as we start to see local government land and property data supply chains improving almost daily, we are looking ahead to see where the technology and interfaces developments tested within NLIS could be replicated to the benefit of the consumer.

NLIS – the future

Although, like many in the industry, we await the imminent decision on Land Registry’s plans with regard to Local Authority Local Land Charge Registers we are also planning ahead with regard to our next steps.

Looking ahead to an Open Data / Public Data Corporation future, we wonder whether this could herald a time when authoritative data providers begin to withdraw from the commercial product supply market. Instead they could consolidate and focus on core service delivery and/or statutory functions leaving the commercial market to face the challenges of delivering and developing new products including the current plethora of conveyancing searches.

This will highlight once again the issues connected with ‘unlicensed data’ reuse. There are many recorded instances of corrupt and out-of-date data being sold, although the products often contain some reference to the original, but no longer relevant source. Where problems arise those seeking remediation are inevitably pushed back towards the originator of the core data for resolution.

This problem is occurring regularly throughout central and local government, in organisations ranging from The Crown Estate, through to trading funds such as Land Registry and onto non-departmental public bodies such as The British Library. Executive agencies such as DVLA and local authorities are similarly affected.

There are growing costs associated in dealing with the resolution of these issues and one potential solution would be the development of an indelible audit trail or accreditation for individual pieces of data.

Purchasers of products would immediately be able to see where the data being used had come from; when it had been taken from the original data set and any other significant factor such as whether the data had been merged with another data set and if so what the provenance of that data set was.

The use of ‘accredited’ data would be covered by a licence and quality mark issued by the originating data provider and commercial companies and those using authoritative data would be able to display these quality marks as a sign of good practice and consumer protection.

Another area of focus for Land Data and one we would hope to pursue quite quickly, should Land Registry decide not to move into the local authority arena, relates to the standardisation of local authority search outputs.

Research shows that a wide variety of formats are used across local government specifically in terms of CON29R responses. Not only does the style of reply vary but the content, in terms of the application of notes and comments, differs from authority to authority. As conveyancers consolidate, whether into larger firms of smaller specialist companies, it is important that the interpretation of often complicated data can be done smoothly and quickly.

We believe that changes will not only make a cosmetic difference, but the risk of misreading a response, or note, will be greatly reduced and this should appeal to conveyancers and lenders alike.

Finally, we know that the NLIS data providers hold a wealth of information relating to land and property, much of it untapped. Following discussions with a range of parties including The Law Society, CML, The Council of Licensed Conveyancers, etc., we intend to explore the possibility of developing new products and solutions to help conveyancers provide their clients with the best possible service, whilst reducing, from a lenders perspective, the age old concern of risk.

Date: January 9, 2012
Author: Rebekah Commane