Data identifying the beneficial owners of land held by trusts would be public by default under one option for improving the transparency of trust information proposed by the government this week. A consultation, Transparency of land ownership involving trusts, proposes closing what anti-corruption campaigners see as a loophole in current requirements for revealing who owns land and property. The proposals ’aim to lift the veil of secrecy’ over landholding trusts, housing secretary Michael Gove said.
Currently, HM Land Registry does not show on a public register details of anyone behind the legal owner who may be able to control, or derive economic benefit from, land. The proposed reform, using powers under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023 to gather and publish more information, will mean residents, the media and the public will be able to find out more about who owns land and property, the government said.
Proposals include a so-called ’maximalist approach’, which would make public by default all information on trusts holding land. The document states that this would be subject to safeguards, for example to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable people.
However the document’s emphasis appears to be on trusts information held by the new Register of Overseas Ownership, which has been criticised for allowing beneficial owners to remain anonymous. It proposes three options:
- Trust information to be publicly available by default, except for protected information .
- Partial informationto be made publicly available by default. This would ’address any real or perceived risks of making all information about trusts publicly accessible by default’.
- No change in public availability: the current system would remain, although with the added new powers of the Levelling Up Act.
According to the document, the government is also interested to hear views on the extent to which the transparency of land held by trusts not associated with overseas entities could be improved. Listed options here include the ‘maximalist approach’.
However the consultation document states that: ’The government recognises that many trusts are set up for legitimate reasons, such as to hold property for a person who may be unable to hold it themselves, either because they are underage or have a disability that affects their capacity. In such circumstances, revealing the identity of the beneficial owners of land through trusts could put vulnerable people in harm’s way.’
In such cases, ’it may be that the right balance is found by publishing the minimum amount of information necessary to establish the details of a trust and land it holds, with further details available to those who have a legitimate interest in knowing them’.
Announcing the consultation, Gove said: ’These proposals will lift the veil of secrecy currently afforded to land-holding trusts. Transparency about land ownership is crucial if we want to make our housing and land markets fairer. In its absence, injustices, corruption and crime can flourish.’
The consultation closes on 21 February 2024.