Who exactly owns this, our Scotland?

Scotland became the first country in the world to establish a national register of land ownership, the General Register of Sasines. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Scotland became the first country in the world to establish a national register of land ownership, the General Register of Sasines. Picture: Donald MacLeod

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Landowners are being encouraged to transfer their land onto the Land Register, says Dianne Paterson

Who owns Scotland? – a question more commonly associated with the astonishing claim that more than half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people.

However, in its more literal context, the Registers of Scotland are currently involved in a major exercise, initiated by the Scottish Ministers and involving extensive consultation, which will ultimately map precisely who owns what in Scotland.

As it happens, Scotland has always had a tradition of recording land transactions, with the earliest register established in the 13th century.

In 1617, Scotland actually became the first country in the world to establish a national register of land ownership, the General Register of Sasines. Whilst this deeds-based register has served the country well, technological advances have led to the creation of much more user-friendly ways of recording who owns what.

Enter the ‘new’ Land Register of Scotland. Begun in 1981, it has totally changed the face of property law and practice. Titles registered in the Land Register give owners the security of a state-backed guarantee, with clarity on what they own and what they can do with their property. Property is usually first added to this Register when there has been a change of ownership after a purchase or transfer of property for value.

In 2014, Scottish ministers invited the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to complete this digital, map-based Land Register by 2024, with a target to register all public land in it by 2019. However, despite being in operation for since 1981, only about 59 per cent of properties in Scotland, or 28 per cent of Scotland’s land mass, have been moved onto this ‘new’ Register.

As many properties are unlikely to go onto the Land Register soon (because ownership won’t change), Registers of Scotland have created several new ways of moving land onto this register in order to complete it within the timescale.

These include closing the old Sasines Register to standard securities from 1 April 2016, so a remortgage with a new lender will trigger registration in the Land Register if the property is still registered in the General Register of Sasines.

Landowners are also being encouraged to make voluntary applications to transfer their land onto the Land Register with assistance from a dedicated team of Registers’ experts.

It is understood that the Registers have been meeting with many private and public sector landowners focussing initially on those with the largest landholdings.

This is believed to have been met with a positive response, with landowners clearly seeing the benefits of clarifying the exact extent of their property, and putting themselves in an ideal position to manage their land in future and maximise any commercial opportunities.

Having already met many large landowners, the team at the Registers is starting to reach out to owners of landholdings such as farms, providing them with the information they need to help them start to move their titles on to the Land Register

Keeper-induced registration, or ‘KIR’, is a new mechanism by which properties can be moved onto the Land Register without the owner making an application.

This approach will initially only be used in residential property areas, mostly housing estates, where there are many similar properties and where the Keeper already has extensive information about ownership titles. A live pilot of keeper-induced registration will begin in autumn 2016. Property owners will be notified that their property has been moved from one public register to another through KIR, and will have free access to their newly mapped, state-warranted title.

Undoubtedly, a single, comprehensive, publicly searchable Land Register will be a national asset for Scotland and will form the base layer of a new land and property information hub, ScotLIS, which will be established and managed by the Keeper from next year. Furthermore, a completed Land Register should make any future property transactions easier, faster, and cheaper.

Once completed, it is hoped that the Land Register will herald a new chapter in land ownership, for land and property owners (large and small), and for the nation as a whole. For some, it might also be hoped that it will be just that little bit easier to find out exactly who does own Scotland.

• Dianne Paterson is a partner in Russel + Aitken LLP

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