“Exploring the Art of the Possible”

John Abbott

Director of Digital, Data and Technology at HM Land Registry

HM Land Registry (HMLR) 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.

Anyone buying or selling land or property, or taking out a mortgage, must apply to HMLR to register:

  • unregistered land or property
  • any new owner of registered land or property
  • an interest affecting registered land or property, such as a mortgage, a lease or a right of way

HMLR is a government department created in 1862. It operates as an executive agency and a trading fund. HMLR's running costs are covered by the fees paid by the users of its services.

Q&A Session with Charlotte Dove McCarthy

  1. How pivotal a role will HM Land Registry play in the future of residential real estate in the UK?

We are really keen to play our role in the future of real estate and to help conveyancers and the property market as a whole to innovate. That's why we started our 'Digital Street' project to look at how technologies like blockchain and AI can start to revolutionise land registration.

Digital Street is our ground-breaking research and development project that is exploring how technology can revolutionise land registration and conveyancing in the future.

Our role is first and foremost as a land registry, we want to ensure that we are the best possible land registry we can be, and ensure that we underpin and support innovation in the sector. We play a pretty important part in the conveyancing process, and there is always an opportunity for us to do more and enable as much innovation as possible. The Digital Street project was born out of the need to make our data accessible and by working with people across the industry who want to do things in different ways.

  1. HM Land Registry has taken massive steps in repositioning from a traditional land registry into an innovative platform. Are you incorporating AI?

HM Land Register holds 25 million titles inside a database. The register was first created more than 100 years ago – so there is still quite a lot of semi-structured data, lots of PDFs, which is fine for today, but not necessarily for tomorrow when we want to publish more data and automate more of our processes. Before we can do this, we need to start improving our database. It needs to be more structured and machine-readable. We have been looking at AI solutions in this context – to read the register and extract pertinent information. Machine learning will help once the database is more structured.

  1. Are you working with Universities or Data Scientists, or an inhouse team that is leading this?

Yes, we are working with a bunch of different partners, but have started with vendors.

  1.  There was quite a lot of press a few years ago about the idea of HM Land Registry being privatised. Do you think that you will stay within state ownership for ever more?

This is and will continue to be a decision of government. But they have given very clear direction in the 2016 Autumn Statement that we will remain in the public sector. This allowed us to pull together a five-year strategy that said we wanted to be the world's leading land registry for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data. This is why we are working on projects like Digital Street. Our five-year plan is to become the best in the world and transform ourselves among the public sector.

  1. What is HM Land Registry's biggest ambition for this new year?

This is hard as there is no one thing – there is a big five-year transformation plan! The current land coverage registered in England and Wales is 85% –  the target is to get this completed by 2030 – so we have some really aggressive targets to get more land registered! There is a bunch of stuff internally in terms of beginning to deliver our digital programme as well as supporting start-ups and hiring more people, but there is no one stand out thing – apart from building up the five-year business strategy. The aim of the game is to transform into the world's leading land registry.

  1. Any pushback from the Old boys? Are the traditional real estate players fighting these changes?

When you design new digital services, if you create them with your users in mind – then it's relatively straightforward to get those users to move with you because you are designing for their biggest pain points.  So whilst we have definitely had some interesting press around Digital Street where we have shown examples of things like chatbot conveyancers, when we work with groups like the Conveyancing Association, Law Society and the Society of Licensed Conveyancers the conversations are always positive.

  1. Does your organisation live by a motto or a set of core brand values? If so, what are they?

We do, we have an ambition to become the world's leading land registry for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data.

We have a mission, 'Your land and property rights: guaranteed and protected.' – this is what we do day to day. We hold a big database, and we stand by our guarantee.

There are a few values which underpin this, which are:

  • we give assurance
  • we have integrity
  • we drive innovation
  • we are professional
  1. You have innovated and modernised your organisation very quickly. Do you have any advice for start-ups in terms of management structure, are there any tips for companies starting out? Ie structuring meetings etc.

There are two pieces of advice that I would give.

People often think that innovation is all about big leaps. Big leaps are of course important, but historically we have come an awfully long way with small leaps. I think people undervalue small leaps. By making a process just a little bit better every single day, over time you can get a pretty long way.

In terms of fostering innovation, you need to give people the time and space to understand what you can do with technology in its broadest sense. So for example you might make sure you have time for teams to learn about AI by attending conferences, talking with academics and other organisations or just playing with the technology themselves. Of course this might also mean you need to hire people with specific expertise in a technology or find the right partner to work with.

However, I'd also be aware that for most organisations new tech only gives a competitive advantage for a short while. It rapidly gets commoditised and built into the cloud platforms of Google, Microsoft and Amazon so what might require a MIT PHD graduate today is probably just a couple of clicks away for an analyst in 18 months.  So I'd be careful about building a strategy around a new technology your competitors will be able to master in 1-2 years.

In fact understanding the tech is useless if you don't also make sure your teams spend time with your users, really observing how processes are broken today, how things don't work.  You put this knowledge together with new tech and you get a spark of innovation. You get a novel solution to a genuine pain point. Your users will really thank you and you'll have built something defensible.

If I had an organisation and was seeking to make it more innovative, I would carve out time for teams to spend time with (current and future) users building a deep understanding of their pain points. I'd then make sure the same teams had the time to build their understanding of new and emerging technologies.

  1. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on innovation. Who do you think has had the most influence over this drive? Is there one single person or a department who has led this?

It is about our core value I think, a value that is around innovation. As an organisation we have a history of being incrementally innovative by improving processes, making sure that people understand that this is as important to us as our other values.

  1. How do reward innovation. Are people welcomed to knock on your door and suggest ideas? If implemented, how are they rewarded?

Really good question… We have a really passionate bunch of staff, many of whom have committed a lot of their careers to HM Land Registry and we are not short of good ideas. We do have an open door communications policy, where people are able to say 'I think we could do this better' and we receive this feedback gratefully.  Every week, our CEO blogs, we blog as Directors once a month, this is a really good place for us to have discussions about things that are broken or not working very well today. The way that we work, as we develop services internally and externally, involves massive amounts of user research, so you get a good sense of what our internal customers and external customers want as we start to develop new services. The recognition that folk get is more about a pat on the back and a highlight of the contribution made, rather than a financial reward. The public sector can give discretionary rewards, but not 'pay off your mortgage' kind of incentives!

We are also working with start-ups through an accelerator called Geovation. This is for start-ups using geospatial data and for start-ups in PropTech, so that is also giving us a better sense of how start-ups work and think. It allows us to support people that are starting to disrupt the industry and get lessons in learning from those guys and help that permeate into HM Land Registry.

  1. Are you working with any groups focusing on the next generation of Real Estate? Graduates, or young people in Real Estate?

We have a huge number of apprentices coming to work here. We have digital apprenticeships, where we take people in and train them up in software development and so on.

  1. What is the gender balance like at HM Land Registry?

We do a really good job of inclusion and a good balance of gender, with a lot of women working for us. 60% of our people are women. In Tech, we would like to get more women into my directorate. We have a fairly active women's network that talks about and takes action on how we can get women to do more in HM Land Registry. We do outreach to schools –  we mentor in local schools to help kids that are 14 to 16 learn about science, technology, engineering and maths and talk to them about careers and how to write CVs, and apply for jobs, what employers are looking for etc. We take quite seriously the idea of attracting as much talent to HM Land Registry, but we want to keep this balanced gender-wise. We have some work to do, in making sure we open up as many opportunities for women in tech. We want to support women and encourage them to apply to work with us.

  1. There are talks of centralising ID verification for your digital mortgage process and conveyancing services. What else can you use this ID verification for in future?

Today, when you get a mortgage from a bank, you sign it with a pen and you need to have a witness watch you sign it. We now have a service which allows you to verify who you are (through GOV.UK Verify) and sign these documents digitally in our digital mortgage service. So that is neat, because it means that it is a more secure system with less of a risk of fraud; it is more straightforward now, no scanning or faxing required.  However the conveyance is still required to verify their customer's ID.

It's too early to say whether GOV.UK Verify could become a centralised ID verification system for conveyancing. At the moment we're using it to verify that the person applying the digital signature is the same person who proved their identity to the conveyancer.  We know from our customers that ID verification is a real pain point.  We plan on exploring it further in the next year as part of the next phase of Digital Street.

  1. Will these digital ID's / Mortgage Certificates be stored on the blockchain

Too early to say!

  1. Speaking of blockchain, how much of your data will you store on the blockchain going forwards and which is the preferred platform?

We have researched blockchain as part of Digital Street – we have taken some properties in the southwest of England, digitised them, put them onto a blockchain and we, together with industry, have built three proof of concepts (potential ideas) on top of that, which are:

  1. Property Advisor – enabling citizens to use a chatbot conveyancer to do their due diligence on a property
  2. Instant mortgage offers – enabling lenders to offer citizens mortgages in a matter of minutes
  3. Smart contracts – digital contracts stored on a blockchain which when signed automate the remainder of the process including the movement of money update of the land register.

We used Hyperledger for Digital Street. The tech is both Open Source and has an open governance model, which is attractive. However we have not made a decision on what, if any, blockchain to use in production.

We are experimenting rather than having committed to the technology as of yet! As part of our experiments, our thinking is that you probably wouldn't put the whole register on the blockchain and we would rather run a private blockchain than a public one, in an environment where you might be sharing with conveyancers and lenders, HM Revenue and Customs etc.

  1. Are there any other current uses for blockchain that you know of which the real estate market should be aware of?

Yes! For enabling transactions, and for distributing data more easily. ID verification is something which could be used industry-wide, but it is still early days.

  1. Energy consumption – Is the blockchain bad for the environment?

Blockchains that verify transactions through 'proof of work' like the bitcoin and Ethereum, where computers 'mine' to verify transactions use massive amounts of energy.  For certain use cases you can choose to validate your transactions differently on a private  blockchain that uses less energy.  Of course by doing so you lose some of the benefits of a public blockchain approach.

  1. Are you looking for any skilled developers in this area? If not, what areas are you looking to hire for this year?

Yes, we have a rolling hiring programme. We are always on the lookout for dev-ops and software engineers as well as data scientists. We are trying to grow our data science capabilities. We have fantastic benefits and most of our tech is done in Devon. so if you want to solve meaningful problems using cutting edge tech whilst maintaining a great work-life balance, we might have the job for you.

  1. Do you outsource any work to other countries?

No, it's all done here in the UK. Most of the software is written by us, so we have actually insourced a lot of work from suppliers over the last five years. We want to ensure that it is our people who are driving our innovation forward.

  1. Proptech community question: Chrissie Lightfoot “By law, all leasehold properties with leases over 7 years or more must be registered. The average length of leases is 3-5 years in many cases now. Are there any plans to bring compulsory registration down to match the trend?”

Any decision to reduce the term of lease that must be registered would have to be considered carefully and in consultation with stakeholders and government. We are constantly looking at ways in which we can better perform our role. However, there are no firm plans to reduce the length of term that must be registered.

  1. Proptech community question: Daniel Roy “Is there a possibility to ever enforce registering the dealing of properties held in SVP (Special Purpose Vehicle) – So the price at which they sell is known?”

There are risks involved that lie with the purchaser and conveyancer when a property isn't registered. These companies will be advised by their own legal experts about the risks involved, and it is for the government to make policy with regard to tax and insolvency matters, not for HM Land Registry.

  1. My final question – if you are not government funded, how will  HM Land Registry make money if they release all of this data openly and freely?

We are a government trading fund – we raise our money through fees. Our fees must always cover our costs though we should not make a profit. So there will always be some fees, such as for updating the register.

Finally, are there any other datasets due to be released this year? I know there was a lot of talk last year about  CCOD & OCOD. Where can our audience find your roadmap for future data set releases?

We are currently working on a roadmap for future releases. We've just completed an intense couple of months of engagement with current and potential data customers to understand the market's requirements for our data. That work is enabling us to prioritise the release of further datasets. We will publish the order of priority in the next few weeks.

Before we can release any of that data, we have to assure ourselves that it will not cause issues from a fraud, Intellectual Property or privacy perspective. We then build a business case and get it approved.

The Land Registry will be exhibiting at FUTURE:PropTech and John Abbott himself, will be speaking on our Residential Stage! Be sure to check out our full agenda and book your tickets today!

Stay up to date with the latest PropTech trends and news

Receive our weekly newsletter every Tuesday morning.