As many of us know from experience, unregistered land can cause all sorts of problems and create opportunities for all sorts of mischief. The Land Registry was set up by the government in 1862 with the objective of registering land ownership. But it was not until 1990 that all land sales in England and Wales had to be registered and 1998 before inheritances and gifts of land were included. Consequently about 15% of the land in England and Wales remains unregistered.
When land is unregistered it doesn’t mean that no-one owns it, only that there is no public record of who owns it. Many landowners, for a number of reasons, choose not to put information about their land ownership into the public domain. In some cases, the ownership of the land is lost in the mists of time.
Guy Shrubshole and Anna Powell-Smith have compiled a map of all the unregistered land in England and Wales. Anna explains how they did it here. This blog post England’s Missing Acres goes into more detail too, using an example from Cornwall.
To fully understand what all this means it’s worth zooming in to an area that you know. You might be surprised by what you find. For example, the map for Ealing and Hanwell looks like this. The red areas are the unregistered land.
The borough of Ealing contains vast swathes of unregistered land, including most of our roads and many of our public parks. Ealing Common, Lammas Park and Elthorne Park are all unregistered. The ownership of Trumpers Field, which lies between Warren Farm and the River Brent, is not registered either.
Presumably Ealing Council owns all this parkland and simply hasn’t got around to registering it. At least, one would hope that is the explanation. The alternative is that much of our parkland exists by the grace and favour of private landowners who might want it back one day. The former explanation is the more likely and it seems to be a common problem across the country. The Land Registry has set a target date of 2025 for all local authority land to be registered, which suggests that a lot of it still isn’t. For 51 designated priority areas, that deadline is the end of 2020. Ealing is one of the priority areas. (See Page 3 of this document.)
This means that the Land Registry is expecting Ealing Council to have all its land registered by the end of this year. Looking at all that red space on the map, this would have been a tall order even before the coronavirus outbreak. Still, it’s good to know that the ownership of our public spaces will gradually be revealed. Even if it has taken 158 years.