One option put forward by the government recently suggests information identifying the beneficial owners of land held by trusts should be made publicly accessible by default. This proposal, part of the Transparency of Land Ownership Involving Trusts consultation, aims to address what anti-corruption campaigners perceive as a current loophole in the disclosure requirements for land and property ownership. Housing Secretary Michael Gove emphasised that the goal is to eliminate the secrecy surrounding landholding trusts.
Presently, HM Land Registry does not publicly disclose details about individuals controlling or benefiting economically from land behind the legal owner. The proposed reform, utilising powers under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023, intends to enhance transparency by gathering and publishing more information. This move is expected to empower residents, the media, and the public with increased knowledge about the ownership of land and property.
The proposals include a "maximalist approach," suggesting that all information about trusts holding land be made public by default, with safeguards in place to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Housing Secretary Gove emphasised the importance of transparency in land ownership, stating that it is crucial to creating fairer housing and land markets and preventing injustices, corruption, and crime.
The consultation document also addresses the new Register of Overseas Ownership, criticised for allowing beneficial owners to remain anonymous. Three options are proposed for trusts associated with overseas entities: making trust information public by default (with protected information exempt), making partial information public by default to address perceived risks, or maintaining the current system with additional powers under the Levelling Up Act.
Acknowledging that trusts are often established for legitimate reasons, such as holding property for minors or individuals with disabilities, the government recognises the need to strike a balance between transparency and protecting vulnerable individuals. In cases where revealing the identity of beneficial owners could pose risks, the government suggests publishing the minimum necessary information about trusts and their land holdings, with additional details available to those with a legitimate interest.
The consultation period is set to conclude on 21st February 2024.