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A brief history of land referencing

Land Referencing in its current form, is a profession which can be dated at least to the canal and railway building booms of the 18th and 19th centuries. It does however have roots throughout the history of land law, originating back to Roman times. The Romans established the basis of civil law in countries around their empire, primarily to settle disputes so that people did not resort to violence to resolve them. This  applied to land ownership. If a person had two years of continuous possession of a house, or piece of land, this constituted ownership.

Knowing who owned land not only reduced disputes, it also empowered the government to identify owners and tax them based on the size of ownership. This principle has been used by governments worldwide ever since  as a tax-raising tool. This meant that tax officials with knowledge about who owned what land were very much in demand. These were the forerunners of today’s Land Referencers.

The first known extensive land referencing exercise in England took 20 years to complete. Starting in 1086, it was part of the collection of information for the Domesday Book. Monks travelled around the  country on donkeys, making  an inventory of every item of value,  including  land. At that time all land was deemed to be in the ownership of the Monarch, who had the power to grant estates in land to lords and tenants, who for this privilege  were obliged to work the land, undertake military  service and pay taxes.

In the 12th century, land in England was categorised as "common" or "waste". "Common" land was under the control of the lord of the manor, but certain rights on the land such as grazing or sowing were held  by  nearby properties.  "Waste" was land without value as a farm strip and not officially used by anyone, becoming often farmed by landless peasants who had no other option for feeding themselves.

The Magna Carta in 1215 was the long  journey of reforming land law and occupation rights which has led to the position we are at today, where any person in the UK has the right to purchase and hold land and property.

Throughout medieval times most land was either in the ownership of the Crown or the Church, with the reign of Henry VIII seeing much more land taken into Crown ownership. This is where it stayed until the English Civil War, when parcels of land were given out as favours. The majority of  land was held by the aristocracy who  either farmed it or built vast estates with ornamental gardens.

At this time land was not defined by physical boundaries as it is today. This  led to disputes about ownership, often due to cattle wandering from one strip of land to another. To resolve these issues several “Enclosure Acts” for small areas had been passed  from the 12th century.

Advances in agricultural knowledge and technology in the 18th century made land more valuable, with landlords  keen to divide up plots and enclose them with increased rents. Tenants  had legally enforceable rights on the land, and to extinguish them substantial compensation had to be paid which led to long running disputes. To regularise matters, powers were granted in the Enclosure Act of 1773. These powers however were often abused by landowners. The preliminary meetings where enclosure was discussed was intended to be held in public but often took pace in the presence of only the local landowners, who chose their own solicitors, surveyors and Commissioners to decide on each case. In 1786 there were 250,000 independent landowners, but over thirty years their number was reduced to 32,000.

The building of canals from 1759 and the latter introduction of railways from 1830  were the beginning of the vast transport links that lead allowed the become a leading export nation. Much of the land acquired by the companies developing the infrastructure was bought from large landowners, with deals being concluded in the back rooms of public houses.

Many owners used this additional income to improve their estates, but some gambled the wealth away. One such example was the nephew of the Duke of Wellington who had to sell his entire estate, including the prestigious Wanstead House, to pay his gambling debts. The contents of the house were put up for auction, with the sale taking 32 days to complete, after which the house that had cost £360,000, to build was demolished for its building materials, these  only selling for £10,000.

The mid-19th century saw one of the biggest  changes to English land law,  the Royal Commission on Registration of Title in 1857. This proposed a system of registration of land holdings and led to the establishment of the Land Registry Office we have and use to this very day, Her Majesty’s Land Registry (HMLR). This in turn lead to the establishment of two significant pieces of land legislation in 1925: the Law of Property Act and the Land Registration Act. It was the hope of the Government that all properties would become registered by 1955. This aspiration took much longer.

The building of the M1, Britain’s first motorway, is probably where today’s land referencing has its roots, with a long linear section of countryside being compulsory acquired to build the new road.

At that time there was possibly only a handful of people,  who either had undertaken referencing or understood the extent to which enquires would need to go to establish who owned what land or rights associated with it. Many of the first referencers were highway trainees who were overseen by a Civil Servant who had a small amount of legal knowledge.

Some of the people who undertook this work saw an opportunity and established their own companies to deliver this service. As new infrastructure developed with the building  of roads, railways and pipelines,  the industry has expanded to the point where we are today, with several companies delivering referencing services.

Changes to  the town and country planning acts relating to Transport and Works Acts and Development Consent Orders at the beginning of this Century have resulted in land referencing becoming  much more involved in the legal determination of Planning Applications. This has resulted in an expansion of the workload and the number of referencers required to undertake it.

Whist many traditional industries in the U.K. have declined or become extinct, this is has not happened to Land Referencing. As the country becomes involved in the introduction of more and more self-sufficient green energy schemes the demand for referencers and the professionalisation of their discipline is seen as a priority.

Although referencing has moved into the digital age, the requirements and skills are still based on long established principles. To determine ownership of any parcel of land a referencer has to undertake diligent inquiry of the information and material which is available and demonstrate through a robust audit trail that this has taken place. Failure to do this can lead to  a legal challenge, which can either delay or prevent a scheme taking place. All of this means that refencing holds the key  to the future, being the first step in any construction project.

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