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Armchair land referencing #22

It is suggested that the total value of all the property in the world is about $326 trillion – about 4 times the world's GDP and 27 times more than of all the gold ever mined. Near four fifths of this this is residential property, which also has the largest spread of ownership with about 2.5bn households; followed by commercial property and then agriculture & forestry just behind. Land is worth 2.5 times the value of secured debt and is maybe 5 times the value of equities.

Unlike in the UK and so called ‘developed’ countries, around the world billions of people don’t have any of the benefits provided by the formal legal tenures that we discussed last time. They occupy land as if they own it, but they remain title-less occupiers with no legal recorded rights. The great Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, notes that this puts a large proportion of the world’s population at a massive disadvantage as without title to the land they occupy they cannot access the US$ tens of trillions these assets would be worth. They can’t raise capital to invest in their homes or businesses, which means they are perpetually marginalized, are poorly represented and served by their governments, and have limited access to the benefits associated with first world life – despite sitting on assets that would be worth a fortune if there were the land registration systems to bring these assets into a legitimate economy. Often the quality of their housing is poor because they don’t want to commit effort and money to a property on land they might be moved off at any time. For the same reason they often don’t have local amenities such as electricity and water. Examples quoted include the shanty towns around Cairo which, if they could only be registered, might be worth more than all the total of all historic foreign investment into the whole of Egypt, including the Suez Canal and Aswan High Dam. De Soto points out that the United States was a primitive economic state before land registration freed up the value of land that fuelled their massive economic growth, and that it took the move towards private land ownership and registration at the fall of communist Russia to release that country’s economic potential – even if much of that value fell into the hands of corrupt oligarchs.

Land referencers might look to find opportunities to bring our skills to bear in the development of easy-to-access, secure legal registrations. These registers would be the gateways to economic success for developing nations, where standardized property documents created to build a public memory would permit societies to engage in crucial economic activities. They could then identify and gain access to information about individuals, their assets, their titles, rights, charges and obligations; they could establish the limits of liability for businesses; know an asset's previous economic situation; assure protection of third parties; and quantify and value assets and rights. These public memory mechanisms in turn facilitate such opportunities as access to credit, the establishment of systems of identification, the creation of systems for credit and insurance information, the provision for housing and essential infrastructure, the issue of shares, the mortgage of property and a host of other economic activities that drive a modern market economy. Hopefully the opportunities for our profession to offer our specialist services to support this type of reform will arise soon.

Over the past 22 editions we have examined boundaries in the built and natural environment and how they have come about; looked at private and public roads and other rights of way; considered administrative boundaries from a parish to county level; discussed how unique identifiers are given to places and routes of all scales; examined how mundane street furniture can provide clues to ownership; considered railways, rivers and other watercourses; pondered subterranean issues; and examined the history of land referencing and the major data providers we use. I hope this has provided some insight into the unique way land referencers unravel any mysteries of the environment around them concerned with the concept of all land is being owned by someone.


This article is written by Ashley Parry Jones, Director – Planning, WSP. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of WSP or SoLR or its members. The information provided does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice and instead is offered for general purposes only. It does not constitute the most up to date legal information. Any links and references provided are for the readers’ convenience only and do not constitute a recommendation of those sources.

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