Interview with James Sherwood-Rogers of CoPSO

Founded in 2003, the Council of Property Search Organisations (CoPSO) was set up by six key industry figures with a view to providing search companies with a professional voice. In this interview, Chairman James Sherwood-Rogers highlights the key challenges the search industry is up against at present, as well as predicting the impact which innovation will have in the future.

  1. What is CoPSO and who do you represent?  

COPSO is the trade body for companies that deal with property information. Our members primarily supply the searches for home buying transactions – we represent about 85% of the search volume in the UK.

The range of information that our members provide has expanded greatly over the years. Not only do they provide both Regulated Personal Searches, LLC1s and CON29s, they also provide drainage and water searches, environmental reports on such issues as contaminated land and flood risk, mining reports, specialist planning reports, chancel searches, HS2 searches and several other specialist reports. The prospective homebuyer has never been better informed.

  2. How long is it actually taking to get a regulated search back?

Whilst in most Councils it is under 7 days, delays in accessing data in less than 10% of councils bring the overall average up to 9 days. Our latest figures show that there are 3 councils currently taking longer than 20 days to provide access, but this varies from month to month.

We review individual council performance with our members regularly and when a problem appears we engage constructively with the council and work out what is going wrong and what needs to be done to address it. Some members consider certain councils to have been deliberately obstructive about access to data, so we are delighted with the government’s proposed new guidelines.

3. How does this compare to official searches?  Do you have any statistics about the range of times here?

If by official you mean one produced by the Council rather than by a search agent, then the figures for production of the Council’s own LLC1 and CON29 are very similar to those for Regulated Personal Searches. Their average is more like 8 days, but they have more outlying councils from the average. For example, there are currently five that take more than 20 days.

One of the big myths that I’d like to deal with is that somehow Council Searches are an entirely separate market, but that’s simply not true anymore –  it’s a blended market. Over 85% of solicitors use a search company who will provide all the searches – from CON29 to environmental, flood and so on. Most of our members actually provide a Council Search if it is faster or cheaper to do so, or if a particular partner has a preference for either a Regulated Personal Search or Council Search.

So, for example in Wakefield, few Regulated Searches are ordered because the Council Search is returned the same day for under £50 –  but most are still provided via a search agent. This means they can be ordered efficiently alongside the other legal searches.

4. Is this a postcode lottery?

It’s more like a reverse lottery; it’s about losers rather than winners. In some areas the Council Search costs over £200 and in others less than £50. As I mentioned earlier, the turnaround times vary too – this applies to both Council and Regulated Personal Searches.  Fortunately, there’s usually just a handful of councils that are causing delays at any one time, but for people moving in that area, it can be extremely frustrating. CoPSO does everything it can to speed things up.

5. Do CoPSO have any statistics on if chains are held up by slow searches?

That’s a bit of a myth that we thought the Government consultation expelled to some degree. Most digitised searches – environmental searches for example – can be turned around in minutes, and the average for a Regulated Council search is under 9 days, so it is hard to see why searches should cause a delay to the overal process – notwithstanding the slowest councils of course.

However, when there is a query about a search result – for example, someone wants to know something more detailed about a specific issue highlighted in a search – then these individual queries can take time to chase up separately, which is why we advise that searches should be ordered in plenty of time.

I think the other reason this myth has developed is that searches are easy to blame when there is a delay. It is not unheard of for a solicitor to call up in a panic having forgotten to order searches, or that they have delayed in order to minimise disbursements in case the chain fails. I’ve even heard of searches being blamed when mortgage offers have been withdrawn so that someone has time to get a new one in place without scaring the rest of the chain!

6. What do you think of the Government proposals on improving the transaction process?

First, from a CoPSO perspective, recognition of the positive impact that private sector search companies have had on reducing turnaround times and costs was satisfying. The sector is rarely acknowledged, but it has pioneered innovative data and technology solutions for decades, leading to faster delivery of better and cheaper information for homebuyers, solicitors and mortgage lenders.

We also welcome the acknowledgement that insurance is not the answer. People want to know what can be known about a property before they buy it.

Secondly, the acceptance that there is no silver bullet, and that change will be about lots of smaller incremental changes, is realistic. Most political interventions are seismic – ministers like to make their name by creating a huge change, but anyone involved in HIPs will recall how disruptive that was. The downside is, of course, that it is unlikely to make a radical difference in the short term and will take real perseverance to deliver.

Finally, an indirect but welcome result of the consultation is that it has served to highlight the challenges and opportunities faced by everyone involved in homebuying, reigniting cross-industry debate and engagement. Technology is driving unprecedented change, and the role of government, professions and private enterprise in the sector is in flux. It will be interesting to see where it ends up.

7. What do you think about Land Registry trying to speed up the slowest 26 authorities by completing LLC1s?

Data digitisation is a good thing, but we are not convinced this is the best way to do it. Had the 26 councils just been given financial aid to digitise their records, it would have cost closer to £10m not £100m, and it would not have had any of the systemic risks that a single central database has. The idea of databasing is outdated – data just needs to be accessible digitally, not centralised.

We remain concerned that the government are spending a lot of money to tick the digitisation box but will inadvertently make the data quality worse as a consequence. Accuracy, detail, and expertise is easily lost and very hard to regain. We know councils have lost people and not replaced them in this area due to the project, and ironically, this has been the cause of slower turnaround times in some councils.

We also believe that the Land Registry have set the price too high for the LLC data. £15 is simply too much because it will still be available free direct from the council. Plus, anybody in Wales is going to find it 2.5 times more than they currently pay!

There is a chance that after digitising the first cohort of councils – which includes all those with purely paper-based records – the project stops. It will at least have been a useful achievement to have digitised these councils, albeit at an eye-wateringly high cost compared to other potential methods in our opinion.

8. What will the provision of data to conveyancers look like in the next five years?

At CoPSO we see a future of ‘information services’ rather than ‘searches’, delivering timely, relevant and reliable data to enable decision making at the right point in the process. This is regardless of whether the decision maker is the homebuyer, a conveyancer, a surveyor, a mortgage lender, an agent or an AI.

It is critical, however, that the data is from a trusted source, so that it can be relied upon by everyone in the process. CoPSO created The Search Code as a regulatory framework for legal searches, and we are looking at how this needs to adjust to take account of the forthcoming changes in the market.

It is possible to imagine that, given the advances in technology, the many physical layers of people, documents and processes that sit between homeowner and homebuyer will merge, replaced by AI driven platforms.

I am sure that as a result, it will become perfectly possible to go from seeing a home to buying it securely within a few days for at least two thirds of cases – the challenge will be dealing with the exceptions.

What I am not so sure about is whether human beings’ emotional decision making capabilities will keep up with technology – buyer’s remorse is going to be a nightmare when you can impulse buy an eco-efficient intelligent living pod in newly fashionable Swindon for £1m on the spot, only to regret it in the morning!

Before we get there, some significant challenges will have to be faced, the biggest of which will be the interoperability or otherwise of competing technologies. Most markets end up with one or possibly two dominant technology platforms – look at Google in search, Apple and Android in phones, or even Rightmove and Zoopla in UK property listings. In five years time, it will become apparent who the winner or winners are going to be in the UK property transaction market.

The government might also seek to carve a larger role in the sector for the Land Registry, which, as well as centralising the LLC data, is investing in start-ups, exploring digital data projects, and have recently been tasked with reviewing the Law Societies’ CON29 form. Any changes to the LR’s role is likely to affect our members, and so is an area we are particularly interested in.

9. What should lawyers do now after the Brabners v The Commissioners for HMRC case?

The natural inclination for what is a conservative profession will be to err on the side of safety and apply VAT in all cases for electronic searches. The ridiculous thing is that the Brabners ruling does not apply to paper searches – but it would be a completely backward step to revert to that way of working!

I am sure that common sense will prevail over time and a clear position be agreed with HMRC which is acceptable to the legal profession.

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