The government was yesterday told repeatedly of the need to mandate conveyancers and the rest of the home-moving sector to adopt new ways of working – but the calls look set to fall on deaf ears.
This was despite the housing minister saying that “a total overhaul of the system” was needed.
A launch event for the new Digital Property Market Steering Group (DPMSG) heard speakers from both the platform and the floor urge that initiatives such as upfront information and common digital standards be made compulsory across the market.
Event chair Kate Faulkner, chair of the cross-industry Home Buying and Selling Group, said it was no use using these new techniques on two out of three properties in a chain – they all had to be using it and mandation was needed to ensure this.
But Jonathan Clifton, deputy director (housing) at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, said that mandation was “not the first port of call” for ministers.
“Our preference is to work closely with industry on creating standards and what we can do to support them from central government,” he said.
While ministers “reserve the right to legislate”, the civil servant indicated that with little more than a year left before an election and the difficulty of finding space in the parliamentary timetable, this was unlikely to happen.
His comments came after a recorded address to the conference – attended by around 300 stakeholders from across the property market – by housing minister Rachel Maclean, in which she described the current home-buying system as “acting not just as a block on economic growth but also as a source of great personal frustration, costing households millions”.
To change this, she went on, “nothing less of a total overhaul of the system will do, harnessing the power of digitisation to make it more transparent and streamlined so that it works for buyers and sellers alike”.
The minister acknowledged the progress made through National Trading Standards requiring more upfront information in property listings and HM Land Registry’s local land charges programme, “which will speed up searches”.
“Now we need to go further to accelerate the pace of change,” she said. “Rapid digitalisation isn’t straightforward for everyone across the industry. We know large parts of the sector are yet to adopt new processes.”
Ms Maclean said the department would be outlining its strategy for doing this soon, “from making crucial property details such as tenure, title and lease length accessible at the click of a button to ensuring that data is robust and accurate, reducing the need for constant checks and speeding up transactions”.
This would all be built on the “solid foundation of clear data standards”, she added.
The DPMSG, announced last month, is an offshoot of the Home Buying and Selling Group. While the latter is a larger caucus with a broad brief to improve the process for home movers, the DPMSG is focusing on the adoption of digital technology.
Ms Faulkner said it was needed, among other reasons, to bring the commercial property industry on board and also work with the six government departments that needed to co-ordinate and change their data feeds.
Asked what success would look like, she suggested that getting back to transaction times being eight to 12 weeks on average, and fall-through rates of 10% “would be a result”. The current figures are around 22 weeks and 34%.
The event heard from Hannah Cook, director of cadastre and land registration at the Norwegian Mapping Authority – its equivalent of the Land Registry – who explained how all public, legal and financial documentation had to be provided upfront, along with a survey and valuation.
This can take up to a month to collate but, with Norway’s system of binding offers, transactions could then take place in a matter of days.
Norway is not directly analogous to England and Wales, as ‘real estate agents’ there handle both estate agency and conveyancing, and buyers do not generally use a lawyer. Further, digital signatures and IDs were already in place when the system came into effect in 2019.
Ms Cook added that there was no need for mandation or government policy to change as cross-sector collaboration was at the reform’s heart.
Speaking on one of the event’s panels, Stephen Ward, director of strategy and external relations at the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, “sadly” agreed that mandation may become necessary but said that would be “a very disappointing outcome”.
The sector “has the ability to move forward together” without it, he argued, with those who did not want to change falling by the wayside.