Three stories about English land secrecy

By Prof Antonia Layard, Professor of Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

Information about land is valuable, politically, fiscally and – increasingly – as geospatial data products ripe for commercial development. Since William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book was completed in 1086, politicians, campaigners and citizens have wanted to know who owns what. Taxation continues to matter but so does freedom of information. Microeconomics, for example, teaches us that a “free market” relies on symmetry of information: if one party knows more than another, the level playing field is distorted. Money laundering and terrorist financing justify the EU’s pursuit of registers of beneficial ownership. Transparency campaigners argue that open and free data on land ownership is both a citizen’s right and that open registers improve efforts to crack down on tax avoidance. Although rights to privacy continue to resonate in English politics, particularly to beneficial ownership in trusts, the calls for transparency grow louder.

And yet, as these three stories about land secrecy show, we still struggle for information about land ownership and deals. While land registry data is publicly available it is held by estate, rather than being mapped cadastrally, giving a birdseye view of land ownership by presenting the boundaries of land ownership spatially. The paradoxical result, as MSP Andy Wightman has pointed out, is that it is easier to assemble cadastral information for previous generations, based on historical surveys (Domesday, the 1830-1840s Tithe Maps, The Return of Owners of Land from 1873-5 or the 1940s Farm Land Use mapping in England) than map land ownership today. Of course, transparency could be achieved at the stroke of a political pen to find out who owns England (story 1), to understand the extent and range of beneficial ownership of land (story 2) or to avoid the use of “redacting” in “viability assessments” to reduce the amount of newly built affordable housing (story 3). Yet – so far – there is a lack of political will to end ongoing secrecy about land ownership and land deals. (more…)

Re-Imagining Land Law & the SQE

By Prof Antonia Layard, Professor of Law (University of Bristol Law School).

© Neil Howard

On Tuesday, 26th September, 45 self-confessed land law nerds travelled to the University of Birmingham for a workshop on Reimagining Land Law organised by Emily Caroll. The workshop – the latest in a series run by the Centre for Professional Legal Education (CEPLER) at the University of Birmingham – saw thirteen law teachers, a barrister and a judge, presenting on how to teach, assess and craft a syllabus for land law.

While the workshop’s aims were lofty (how do we teach the subject we love most effectively?) there was much debate about the proposals released in June 2017 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). The SRA Board has decided to introduce the SQE as a common assessment for all would-be solicitors from late 2020. The new qualification will consist of four elements so that, by the time candidates seek admission as a solicitor, they must: (1) have passed SQE stages 1 and 2, demonstrating that they have the knowledge and skills set out in the competence statement to the standard prescribed in the Threshold Statement; (2) have been awarded a degree or an equivalent qualification, or have gained equivalent experience; (3) have completed qualifying legal work experience under the supervision of a solicitor or in an entity under SRA regulation for at least two years (or full-time equivalent); and (4) be of a satisfactory character and suitability, to be assessed at point of admission. (more…)

Is the Treasury taking over land use planning?

By Prof Chris Willmore, Professor of Sustainability and Law (University of Bristol Law School).

site-meeting-july-2013-brimshamHousing supply was marked as one of the key issues by the incoming government in 2015. Treasury estimates put the need for additional housing in England at between 232,000 to 300,000 new units per year, a level not reached since the late 1970s and two to three times current supply.

Aiming to tackle this issue, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid took the opportunity at 2016 Autumn Conservative Party Conference to announce a package of measures to speed up house building. Successive Secretaries of State have made similar pronouncements, to be followed by rather quieter explanations of why the measures failed, with blame variously afforded to councils, developers, or ‘nimbyism’. This time the ‘nimby’s were at the front of the queue for blame. What is surprising is not the announcement, but what it tells us about the role of the town and country planning, a massive and complex regulatory system that aims to chart a path through the conflicting environment, economic and social pressures affecting decisions about the use of particular pieces of land. (more…)

What is Legal Geography?

By Prof Antonia Layard, Professor of Law (University of Bristol Law School) *

Legal geography is an exciting and emerging cross-discipline, exploring how people and places co-constitute the world. It proceeds from the premise that the legal co-creates the spatial and the social while the social and the spatial co-create the legal. There is reflexivity. Once we accept this premise, however, the hard work begins. How do we work out what ‘work’ legal provisions and practices are doing to create spaces (national, regional, local or private) and how do spatial and social settings inform the application of legal rules and principles?

In a piece that was commissioned by Geography Compass, both to provide an overview of where legal geography is today as well as to consider where it is heading, Luke Bennett and I developed the idea of becoming a ‘spatial detective’. We suggested that there is much to learn by both legal scholars and geographers becoming ‘spatial detectives’ – of learning, Sherlock Holmes-like, to search out the presence and absence of spatialities in legal practice, and of law’s traces and effects embedded within places. To make this argument, we revisited the debates around the case of R –v Dudley & Stephens ((1884) 14 QBD 273, still a classic in Law Schools).

bookOn 6th September 1884, three sailors arrived in Falmouth and reported to the local Customs House, resenting sworn statements there about their recent activities. One month later, these candid statements became evidence in their trial for murder held at the Devon & Cornwall Winter Assizes, in Exeter. This case, R –v Dudley & Stephens, proved to be one of the most contentious legal decisions in English legal history. For the courts ruled that the killing and eating of a cabin boy by these sailors, was a crime under English Law. This was so, even though the sailors would have died had they not done so, as they drifted helplessly aboard a lifeboat in the South Atlantic, 1600 miles off the Cape of Good Hope. (more…)