Lack of political direction responsible for convoluted property registration system
‘Never waste a crisis” is a cliche, as is the argument that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Bearing both cliches in mind, this column intends to look at the proper use of a crisis through the lens of the recent history of property registration.
Snooping reporters love public registers. The high-ceilinged, big-windowed reading room in the Registry of Deeds on Dublin’s Henrietta Street, with its walls covered by shelves of dusty, bound tomes, has been the backdrop for quite a few scoops over the years.
More recently, actually going to Henrietta Street has become less necessary. A lot of the information in the Registry of Deeds (which holds data mainly to do with Dublin and Cork cities) and the more extensive Land Registry files, can now be accessed online due to ongoing improvements by the Property Registration Authority.
But the data available is to date still less than what is retrievable from registries in the United States.
As I discovered some years ago when checking the US property holdings of a then government minister, it is possible, working online, to search registers there under an owner’s name, see mortgage documents, the price paid for a property, and lots of other juicy information.
Experts in property registration say the level of mapping accuracy in the Irish system is far below what it should be in an era of GPS and digital mapping.
It is widely accepted that a world-class, efficient and transparent property registration system is a boon to a developed economy, not least for the fact it can serve as the basis for related services.
E-conveyancing can speed up the land transaction process while simultaneously reducing legal costs.
More rapid conveyancing can prove attractive to foreign direct investment. Property bubbles can be more easily spotted if there is detailed per-metre price information available that can be compared with other jurisdictions.
Patrick Prendergast, a lecturer in the Department of Special Information Sciences at the Dublin Institute of Technology, makes the point that a well-designed electronic system would allow organisations with large property banks, such as Government departments or State agencies, to better manage their portfolios.
But a determination to maximise the potential of the land registration process does not seem to have marked the political response to a number of recent difficulties that have touched on this area.
When the Commission on Taxation came out in favour of a property tax in its 2009 report, one of the ways the awkward political topic was parked temporarily was to say the tax could not be imposed until a residential property register was in place.
It seemed an ideal moment to announce the further resourcing of the property registration system, one that would form the bedrock of a valuation databank for residential properties.
But this did not happen. Instead the Revenue Commissioners is engaged in creating a new database that draws on a number of sources, including Land Registry files. A parallel, and partial, structure is being put in place.
When the issue of data protection and the public disclosure of the price paid for a residential property arose some years ago, it led to the creation of the Property Price Register, operated by the Property Services Regulatory Authority.
This register, now live, contains details of the prices paid for property since the beginning of 2010, with the values being based on the stamp duty paid to the Revenue Commissioners.
Yet price data is already part of the Land Registry system, though not publicly available.
The price register is another partial, parallel structure containing information about property.
Surely a more useful way to approach the various recent strands of the debate around property would have been to place the property registration system at the centre of what could then be a wide range of other activities, including tax collection.
The Property Registration Authority has been doing excellent work but the creation of parallel structures seems to indicate a failing of overall political direction.
Perhaps this has something to do with the public’s aversion to the property tax, and even political unease about transparency and snooping reporters? One hopes not.