Local Authority Search delays need to be tackled

As I hope you’re aware, the Association is currently putting the final pieces in place for our ‘White Paper’ on ‘Modernising the Home Moving Process’ and we have looked extensively throughout the current system to see where there can be severe delays, or increased costs, or both, and in doing so have actively looked at solutions in order to counter these issues.

One ‘hidden’ area which can produce significant delays is around access to Local Authority (LA) Searches. I say ‘hidden’ as in the main it does not impact the transaction timescales because currently other elements take longer but if we resolve those other issues then the Local Authority Search delays will stand out like a sore thumb. And of course it is not just the time it takes to get the result back it is also the additional enquiries which are raised as a result of the information (or lack of it) contained in the search result.

So the issue is not just in terms of getting back the relevant information but also in terms of when in the process searches are instructed. Let’s be frank, the consumer tends not to have a great deal of understanding about the content and risks associated with a Local Search, plus (again if we’re being honest about this) the systems used, particularly the English Council Local Authority Search, are not exactly operating at the cutting edge of technology though this is not for want of trying.

After the National Land Information Service (NLIS) was established 15 years ago it is now connected to every local authority across England and Wales meaning that all search orders can be submitted through NLIS electronically and 96% of authorities reply electronically too.

Great, you might think, problem solved.  However, while the NLIS connection is robust, once we get passed NLIS and into the LA’s own system the picture is very different with comparatively few LAs having the resources to digitise their back-office system to be able to process the search data collation within a reasonable turn-around time. So, either all of England & Wales’ LAs back-office data needs to be digitised and their internal databases connected together, which is an aspirational but unlikely scenario, or a more pragmatic approach needs to be taken.

Since the demise of the Audit Commission, no one formally monitors search turnaround times or is charged with offering assistance to struggling authorities.

This has major consequences as we seek to bring down the timescales involved in the full purchase process and perhaps move to a system whereby this type of information is provided upfront – back to the future in a sense with perhaps the return of the HIP, but in a ‘skinny’ format.

There are of course further underlying issues here in terms of conveyancers opting to use Regulated Local Searches rather than Council Local Searches (due to delay and the variable costs associated with Council searches). Search agents often have difficulty here as LAs have an obligation to provide the information contained in the CON29 free however there is no funding for the resources required to produce this information for them. It’s only where the LA can provide an enhanced service that they can recoup any of the cost.

We also have requests for information dealt with in differing ways by different LAs, some being channelled through Environmental Information Regulation/FoI teams, some dealt with by Local Land Charges, and some directly by originating departments. Other issues arise around the data systems used and the fact they’re not set up to extract the data required by the Search Agent – in other words confidential/personal data might be displayed next to the information required and we often have a situation where the LA has to read out the data, rather than provide the paper entries, because of the other sensitive data it contains which can obviously not be provided.

As can be seen, the legacy issues run deep; coupled with the lack of resources needed to enhance digitisation and the restrictions on the ability of LAs to charge for the service, we’re left with a severely hampered ability to improve access which contributes heavily to the level of delays we are (no doubt) all accustomed to.

There should of course be another way, and we at the CA are calling for a number of changes to the current process. We appreciate that LAs appear to be between a rock and a hard place but this doesn’t mean we can’t seek improvement in a number of areas. Firstly, digitisation – in Scotland the digitisation of all LA data appears to have solved the issue, enabling conveyancers to obtain search results within 24 hours and at set fees around £60.  The information is required by various pieces of legislation to be available to the public at all reasonable times and published online as soon as practicable.

Unfortunately, for us, the Land Registry project to digitise part of the search, the Register of Local Land Charges – essentially 12 bits of data – is going to take until 2023, so you have to question how a publicly-funded project to digitise the remaining 130 pieces, which are required to be integrated for the CON29R, is going to happen.

However, it is worth noting that the Scottish Property Enquiry Certificate (their equivalent of the Local Search) contained very much less data and this raises the question – do we really need to be asking all these questions? Some of them, let’s face it, can’t even be answered by LAs because the systems are not yet in place e.g. SuDs.  Would we be better served by digitising only the relevant data and requiring much less of it?

What we do know, is that the current situation is untenable. The inability to access this data causes delays of up to four weeks to the transaction times and the lack of resources currently available to LAs in order to develop their systems means this will not improve without action. Even, as a first step, ensuring LAs allow search agents five-day access to the data would be a step forward – at present there is no requirement to allow this 9-5, five days a week. This type of change, and ultimately allowing search agents to collect the data digitally, would save time, resource and money and perhaps help us to cut out some of the unnecessary delays that continue to blight the process.

Today's Conveyancer