It is very clear we are living through extremely unusual times. Like many of you, we have had to make changes to the way we work to ensure we can keep on working and doing what's best for our customers and for the public health effort. We will continue to adapt as the situation and guidance evolves.
Since the lockdown was first announced in late March our challenge has been to maintain our most essential services, to protect our staff by following the public health guidelines, and to support the national effort to stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
We have prioritised those services which have an immediate impact on the ability to buy and sell property; notably the official searches and copies applications needed before a sale can take place.
We are processing urgent updates to the register through our expedite process. Some of our customers have found themselves in very difficult circumstances and there have been some remarkable examples of our people working together to ensure each situation is managed to a successful conclusion.
We have also listened to the questions and comments coming in to us from our customers and introduced a number of policy changes including a temporary relaxation of our identity verification requirements and acceptance of ‘Mercury approach’ scanned signatures. Our Chief Executive, Simon Hayes, has been regularly emailing customers on these changes and the status of our services. These messages have been updated on our GOV.UK pages, through social media, shared with our stakeholders and on the HM Land Registry portal messaging.
However, like most businesses around the country – indeed around the world – we have had to quickly adapt to working under lockdown. In the beginning this meant we had fewer staff able to support our services, but we have been bringing more and more of our staff online and improving the speed of our services as quickly as possible.
Building our capacity
For many years we have been investing in automating some of our services, making it possible for our customers’ applications to be lodged electronically though our Business e-services. As a result of this long-term investment, when the lockdown hit our customers could still secure priority for their clients, with many search results being issued without delay, by using the HM Land Registry portal. However, many applications still need to be processed by our expert people.
As such our first priority was enabling our staff to work remotely. Even with recent changes to the government guidance we know there could be a second period of lockdown, bringing with it the additional impacts such as people being unavailable due to health issues or caring responsibilities. We believe this approach will support our efforts now will allow us to continue with greater flexibility in the long run.
We had to get our people online at a time when the entire country was looking to work remotely. Like you, our caseworkers are working in very different and sometimes difficult circumstances. Just under 6,000 staff work for HM Land Registry, and the vast majority are caseworkers who usually work from 14 offices across England and Wales.
Due to the sensitive nature of land registration we have never needed to perform land registration work remotely before, so only 1,000 members of staff have had equipment to work remotely.
Ensuring our staff had access was one part of the challenge. We knew we needed to develop new processes to securely support remote casework and we needed to do it quickly. However, above all else, it is essential the integrity of the register is not affected. This work cannot be rushed. We will be increasing our remaining service capacity over the coming months. Customers may have noticed requisitions and replies starting to come back.
Prior to 23 March, we completed 95% of the 18,000 daily applications to update the register within five days. We are now processing more updates than we receive each day, but it will take some time to clear the backlog which built up in March, April and early May when we were unable to process significant numbers. We have been processing fewer register create applications (first registrations, transfers of part and first leases) during this period but we will be rebalancing our efforts and resources on to these cases.
We are also aware that the volume of applications received has fallen and that many of our customers are expecting a bounce back over the summer months.
We were already reflecting on our priorities before the coronavirus struck, and we are taking the opportunity to take a step back and look at the level of service we provide across our different products. We will be reaching out to ask about all of our customers’ priorities and how they feel we should prioritise our work. We will then be reviewing how we manage all our services in line with what they tell us to make sure we are accurately meeting their needs and providing the best support possible to the market.
This may result in changes to some services. All decisions on this will be based on clear evidence that this is what our customers need. We will be sharing more about this in the coming months.
In the meantime, if there is a need to expedite an application, due to hardship or a linked transaction and so on, I urge customers to use Application Enquiry to ask us to expedite, and we will prioritise these cases where possible. This allows us to clearly identify the most urgent cases and quickly meet our customers’ needs.
This has been a very challenging time for us and our customers. I know our services have not always been up to our usual standards; however I believe we are now in a much stronger position and we are getting stronger every day. In a second blog, to be published in the next few days, I will be exploring how this work has positioned us to be even stronger going forward.