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Monday, January 19, 2009

Fighting for jobs

Recently I had a meeting with Union representatives from the Land Registry, who have two offices in Swansea employing more than 700 staff. The Land Registry was my employer before I became an Assembly Member so I have more than a passing interest in its future.

Being a demand-led service the Land Registry has been particularly badly hit by the collapse in the housing market. They operate as an independent trading fund and look set to make a loss for the first time ever. As a result they are embarking on a period of rationalisation and have earmarked £25 million to close down offices and to lay off staff.

In Swansea that could result in the two offices being merged and the loss of up to 220 staff posts. Management are seeking to achieve this through voluntary redundancy on compulsory terms and through transferring staff to other departments where there are vacancies but naturally there is a fair degree of cynicism as to whether this is achieveable.

I recall that the last time there was a slump in the property market spare capacity was used to improve the service to customers. Specifically, all of the Land Registers were computerised enabling a swifter service and a move towards e-conveyancing, of which more later. This meant that when demand picked there were skilled and well-trained staff in place who could deal with it.

The one thing I took away from the Land Registry was its ethos of investing in its staff and it is a slashing staff numbers by so much when they will need these people later on as the property market recovers.

Accordingly, I have written to the Chief Land Registrar to ask him to think again. Specifically, I have suggested using staff to computerise their filed plans and to consider changing legislation so as to bring in more work. They could also systematically seek out voluntary registrations from large land-owning public bodies such as Local Councils, the Ministry of Defence, the Forestry Commission or even charities like the National Trust?

If such work was obtained and kept within Wales then it would be possible to minimise job losses. It would also be possible to continue to concentrate staff in one office at the same time by taking up short term office space around the Wales Office to accommodate those who cannot be housed in the main Llansamlet office.

One aspect of their work that could have contributed to the present crisis is the Land Registry's attempt to get into e-conveyancing. Like other government computer projects this appears to have crashed and burned badly.

According to the current issue of Private Eye the Land Registry has written off £15 million of the £42 million spent up to last March on this project. The scheme was launched in 2002 by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irving and should have seen paperless conveyancing become the norm two years ago.

Private Eye says that under the 'chain matrix' system property sale chains should have been logged and tracked electronically enabling lawyers, estate agents, buyers and sellers to check on progress. But the system was so hopeless that only 10 such chains were successfully recorded, the longest covering just two transactions. They say that the idea has been abandoned with a promise to look at it again in a couple of years.

The magazine says that the Land Registry is now doing the market research that should have been done years ago to gauge 'the current and likely future market behaviours and preferences'. They believe that enough will emerge to justify keeping the multi-million pound contract with IT supplier, IBM despite their track record. For example according to the public accounts committee IBM was the company that supplied the IT contract for the Department of Transport which instead of saving £57 million, will end up costing taxpayers £81 million.

Long term planning does not appear to be one of the Land Registry's strengths.
I'm with you all the way on this, Peter.
YAY I got the whole post!


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