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Registering land for more than 150 years

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Buying and selling property, Historic
An aerial view of a suburban housing estate

“An ungodly jumble.” This is how Oliver Cromwell described English land law back in the 17th century and for the last 157 years it has been the responsibility of HM Land Registry to register land and property across England and Wales 

We were founded more than 200 years after Cromwell died. There is some surprise, having been in existence since 1862, that the Land Register is not fully complete and 14% of the freehold land of England and Wales remains unregistered. 

If you understand the history of land registration and the various steps on the journey, maybe the surprise should be that 86% coverage has been achieved without resorting to anything more forceful than making registration compulsory if a specific transaction on the property takes place, combined with a programme of encouraging land to be registered voluntarily. 

We have an ambition to achieve comprehensive registration by 2030 so we need to understand what lies within that ‘difficult’ last 14%. Comprehensive means having registered all the land with a defined extent where the owner is known. Discovering what that land is, and why it has not been registered so far, are the most pressing issues ahead if we’re to achieve the 2030 timescale.  

History of compulsory registration 

The principle of ‘compulsory’ registration is that if land is subject to a specific event such as a sale, that land will be brought onto the register. This principle was first aired in 1897 but it took until 1925 before the power was introduced for the government to initiate areas of compulsory registration. The first compulsory area was Eastbourne in 1926 which now stands at 95% registered. 

It took until 1990 for the whole of England and Wales to be subject to compulsory registration.   

Pace of natural growth 

The pace of the growth of the Land Register relies on several things and HM Land Registry has taken steps to increase the number of events that trigger registration.  

Events that can trigger a first registration include a death of a sole proprietorsale, a mortgage or appointment of a new trustee.  

Due to these ‘triggers’ over the last few years, coverage has increased by just over 1% each year, which equates to an annual growth of around 150,000 hectares, but this is likely to slow as the scale of unregistered land diminishes.  

Higher level of activity in the housing market can also increase registration rates as more sales mean more registrations if the land is unregistered.  

Encouraging a faster pace 

Despite compulsory registration being in place since 1990, by 2005 the Land Register still only covered around 50%. A successful programme to encourage voluntary registration was put in place which showed that, on the whole, property and landowners recognise the benefits and protection of registering their land or property with HM Land Registry.  After all, it is normally one of the most valuable assets we can have. We have run campaigns aimed at utilities, local authorities, farmers and large landowners such as the Crown Estate, Church Commissioners, National Trust, Forestry Commission,and Defence Estates along with many large private estates. This has resulted in a significant jump in the amount of land registered, taking the coverage to around 80% by 2012.  

Current strategy 

We have an aim to register any unregistered public estate by 2025 which means our current focus is to work with public bodies to ensure all their landholdings are registered. We worked with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to create a list which indicates the scale of unregistered public land.

The remaining 14% 

Some of the remaining 14% of unregistered land will come onto the register ‘naturally’ because of a triggering event occurring and by 2030 we believe most residential properties will be registered 

We don’t hold data on unregistered land so we are researching other datasets to try to understand what is within that 14%. Some private landowners hold their land in a way that means it is unlikely to trigger a registration and some land is unlikely to change hands either for a long time or ever. We believe that much of the national road and rail network is unregistered and we are working with partners to address this, but we need to consider what extra measures can be used to complete the register.  

Achieving comprehensive registration is a huge challenge, and 2030 feels like a very short timescale given that the work began in 1862, but it’s a challenge we are up for.  We’re proud of the progress we’ve made since 2005, but recognise the effort needed in registering the final 14%.  

As always, we welcome your thoughts.

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  1. Comment by Alex posted on

    Re identifying the final 14%.Quite a lot of diocesan land is unregistered. You might contact them and explain the advantages of registration and ask that they implement a policy of voluntary registration similar that which many local authorities have undergone.

    • Replies to Alex>

      Comment by Shane Bartlett posted on

      Hi Alex, many thanks for your interest and suggestion. Having worked with a number of diocese in the past, we will certainly be looking to engage with them as you suggest. I know from experience that there is interest on their part to seek to ensure the openness and security registration of their land holdings brings.

      Shane Bartlett
      Head of Public Sector Strategy
      H M Land Registry

  2. Comment by Cheryl Vander posted on

    It seems to me that it is in everyone's interest to know who owns what, so that it is properly stewarded. In our village, we have just started a Land Trust, in order that developers who wish to gift a parcel of land , have a legal vehicle in which to do so. This would include other villagers who wish to leave a gift of land in their will. The aim is to ensure land is properly stewarded and that it is for the benefit of more people than previously.
    Your aim of identifying those difficult to trace parcels of land ownership would fit very well with parish councils, who have background knowledge of previous ownership and can perhaps make enquiries on your behalf. Have you considered using the parish council networks to assist you? This could be mutually beneficial. I have offered my judicial email address, as a one off contact, should you wish to contact me in the first instance, as I am changing my internet provider next week (5 June), so cannot supply an accurate home email for a week or so.

    • Replies to Cheryl Vander>

      Comment by Shane Bartlett posted on

      Hello Cheryl, as HMLR's lead on Comprehensive Registration strategy, Maggie has asked that I respond on her behalf. My apologies it has taken me so long.

      I am currently considering how best to engage with the 11000 or so Parish and Local councils that exist in England and Wales and your interest and advise at this time is most welcomed! Using representative groups to outline our aims and create the necessary contacts will be, as you suggest, a major part of our plans.

      I'm keen to learn from the experiences and needs of people working in Parish and Local councils and would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss any ideas you may have personally. My own email address is Please feel free to contact me.

  3. Comment by J. Shaw, solicitor, Nether Edge Law posted on

    HMLR has previously consulted on this but failed to adopt any suggested methods to reach that remaining 14%. These include some or all of the following:
    1. Target companies, via Companies House mailshots.
    2. Target charities, via Charity Commission mailshots.
    3. Target owners of large old-established portfolios of freehold reversions, often long-term family trusts- it must be apparent where these own, by considering areas on which properties (flats or houses) are subject of only good leasehold titles without any superior title registrations.
    4. Offer limited-term free voluntary registration (e.g. within three months) on an area-by-area geographical basis.

  4. Comment by Shane Bartlett posted on

    Thank you for taking the time to consider the many challenges of identifying the variety of land owners who have yet to register their land.

    As you correctly state, we have considered these challenges at many times in our long and proud history. In encouraging voluntary registration our past activities have focused on those owners of land where we believe our current triggers for registration (eg on sale) have not, or are unlikely, to affect. Your suggested attention to family trusts is an excellent case in point and we have approached and worked positively with many of these in the past. Working with those that remain will form an important part of our longer term strategy.

    Maintaining the appropriate balance of ensuring we deliver our commitments to intakes of work from compulsory registration, with that which we are encouraging voluntarily, is an essential part of our aim. Our targets for 2020, 2025 and 2030 seek both to deliver comprehensive registration in areas of greatest benefit to government, whilst upholding our commitment to the other essential services we provide.

    Our present priorities are to the voluntary registration of publicly held land. We are currently considering our strategies to the challenge for that which remains in the private sector. I am most grateful for your suggestions, which I have noted, and will most definitely be considering alongside those we may have discounted in the past and others we have never considered before.

  5. Comment by Sarah McCann posted on

    Has the Registry considered working with Housing Associations? I have working the in the housing sector for over 16 years (after 17 years at the Registry) and each association I work for has the same problem of legacy land that is not registered.

    It may be worth doing some joined up work with the National Housing Federation of Chartered Institute of Housing to prompt organisations to look at their portfolios.

    • Replies to Sarah McCann>

      Comment by ianflowers posted on

      Sarah - Thank you for your comment and it is a good point you have raised with a very useful contact. Colleagues involved in this area will add this to their next meeting agenda to discuss further.

  6. Comment by Steve Burke, Chairman, Clitheroe Civic Society posted on

    Clitheroe Civic Society is trying to secure registered ownership of two listed grade II unregistered ancient town wells:
    St Mary's Well, Well Terrace Clitheroe, ref: PRN3586 - MLA3586 Rectangular walled pool, probably Medieval, still in use until 1852, and
    Heild (or Town Well) Well, Wellgate Clitheroe, ref: PRN3651 - MLA3651
    Square flagged walled pool, pre-1634. Together with the wells in Parson Lane (Stock Well - registered by Ribble Valley Borough Council may 2019 HMLR Ref LAN 220923 20.05.2019) and Well Terrace was the only water supply for the town until 1852.

    We believe that the substantial historic evidence we have collected, commencing in 1593 and up to and probably beyond LA's reorganisation 1974, of the current LA's municipal forebears possessory actions are grounds for a valid First Registration application for these listed heritage assets to be - at least - submitted for consideration. In the absence of any traceable deeds (there may possibly never have been any or if there were they now either lost or untraceable) the LA have concerns about completing a First Registration Application on the basis of lost deeds and they are reluctant to make a Statutory Declaration to HMLR to this effect.

    The Society, and their legal advisors, believe the historic evidence of active possessory activity by the current LA's forebears constitutes a strong case for some form of possessory title for Heild & Stock Well.
    We are currently trying to persuade the LA to make such application for these two unregistered wells and thereby be able to secure their long term future. Is HMLR able to offer an opinion on this issue - as part of its current initiative to secure 100% registration by 2030 - which might assist the LA having the confidence to make such application?

    We and our advisors believe that Heild and St Mary’s wells are 'novel assets' and not the usual assets one would find deeds for – i.e. property that has been traded by conveyance or mortgage. This is undoubtedly a complication for our Society and the LA, which HMLR's pre-application advice could be of great assistance in resolving. FIN.

  7. Comment by Ronald Shepcar posted on

    I am looking into the history of my house and was wondering if Land Registry could provide me with a list of all the previous owners?

  8. Comment by Janet posted on

    We are interested in getting our historical documents. My husbands parents purchased the land in 1936, it was passed onto my husband who was born on the property about 30 years ago when his father died, my husband is now 62. The neighbour next door moved in 6 years ago & is claiming that he owns 3ft beyond the boundary & that fences etc are in the wrong place, he has written to us telling us we are trespassing & that we need to remove anything within 3ft & not to put up any fences, plant any hedging or walk on this 3ft stretch of land that measures over 700ft in length. Any advice/support would be appreciated, we don’t have the money to argue this with him.

  9. Comment by Caroline posted on

    I bought a house with freehold but my neighbour walks on my land as their right of way but I want to find out if there was any other point of access past history ei genels or alley ways in the past instead of on my property

    • Replies to Caroline>

      Comment by AdamH posted on

      Caroline - I’d suggest you research any old deeds you may have access to or take a look at old maps to see if they offer any clues.
      However I’m uncertain as to why you would be looking back. If you are looking to change the right to something else, old or new, then isn’t that something to perhaps discuss, agree and achieve with the neighbour now?

  10. Comment by Jenny posted on

    We own a property and outbuildings on land approx 5 acres in a rural setting which was once a farm then smallholding. My husband now has vascular dementia and we know we are going to need to move house in a few years time. My idea is to create a willow hedge boundary around the house and allow for a large garden and sell that off with right of way over the access lane and shared use of the car park. I could start the planting of the hedge this Autumn. I want to retain the surrounding fields, outbuildings and a small bungalow which is rented out long term.
    Does this sound feasible and how would I go about doing this with regards to planning permission and changing the deeds?

  11. Comment by Joe posted on

    Why not ask the Government to make it compulsory for land to be registered if insurance is going to be taken out for it?

  12. Comment by Christine posted on

    We are thinking in buying part of our neighbours garden. I have been told it is a long process to do this, is that correct?

    • Replies to Christine>

      Comment by AdamH posted on

      Christine - if you mean the registration process then the wait time between receipt by us and it being considered/completed is lengthy at present, 9 months or so.
      But if you are buying it and staying out then how long it waits should not be an issue

      • Replies to AdamH>

        Comment by Christine posted on

        We would like to buy a piece of our neighbours garden and then submit a planning application with our local council. I am just wondering can we just do a private agreement, submit a registration at the land registry but be able to do use of it immediately and not wait those 9 months. What do you mean by “ But if you are buying it and staying out then how long it waits should not be an issue”?

        • Replies to Christine>

          Comment by AdamH posted on

          Christine - it should have read ‘staying out’ so apologies as that would have answered your extra Question.
          There’s no direct link between planning and registration so once you’ve completed the transfer and submitted the application to register you don’t need to wait for us to register