Freeing up data – a nail in the coffin for Official Searches?

On 29th July the Government announced that the fee for carrying out a personal search of the Local Land Charges Register (formerly £22) was to be scrapped with effect from 17th August 2010.  Subsequent guidance issued to local authorities by the CLG and DeFRA confirms that most CON29 information is ‘environmental information’ and should be provided free for inspection.
Announcing the changes, Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, said "Moving home is difficult and stressful, and the new Government wants to make it easier. We’ve already taken steps to scrap Home Information Packs, and now we are cutting the cost of researching the detail about your new home.” 
Shapps continued “This shows in practice how freeing up public sector data and opening up the books can benefit the whole economy, by cutting transaction costs and increasing competition."
Whilst this move is being heralded as part of the Government’s ‘open data’ agenda, the real reason is more than likely the result of a long campaign by STL and other major players in the search industry to apply the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) to property searches. 
What does ‘freeing up data’ really mean?
The EIR state that environmental information should be able to be examined on site free of charge.  A view endorsed by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) which has ruled in a number of cases that local authorities have been charging illegally, prompting the Government into action. 
Under EIR, a local authority must respond within a maximum of 20 days and recent rulings suggest that the ICO will not abide stalling tactics.  The key question going forward will be the definition of ‘access’ and whether some local authorities continue to favour their own compiled searches over personal searches. 
Good news for the conveyancer, great news for the consumer
For over 10 years, many local authorities have placed barriers in the way of personal search companies, restricting appointments and introducing unfair charging regimes in order to benefit and illegally profit from their own searches.  The Government has now made it perfectly clear that such practices will not be tolerated.  Freeing up data, cutting transaction costs and leveling the playing field are good for the conveyancer and great for the consumer.
What impact will this have on personal and official searches?
The average cost of a personal search has dropped since the Government’s announcement, now making it far more cost-effective than an official search in most areas.  And if, as predicted, local authorities increase the price of an official search so that they can balance their books and achieve cost recovery, the difference in price is likely to get even bigger. 
Costs aside, now that most CON29 data should be available under the EIR, official and personal searches should be identical in content.  With a recent Trading Standards audit demonstrating that personal searches backed by the Search Code are accurate and on a par with those compiled by the local authority, freeing up data may be another nail in the coffin for official searches.
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