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Exclusive: One-to-one with Land Registry’s director of digital services John Abbott

  • 23/01/2018
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Exclusive: One-to-one with Land Registry’s director of digital services John Abbott
John Abbott, director of digital services at Land Registry, talks to Mortgage Solutions about HM Land Registry’s (HMLR) plans for digitisation, the future of conveyancing, and the human role in the years ahead.

Over the next five years, the HMLR plans to transform the organisation into a world leading registry – and will do so by opening up access to its data on 25m land and property registered titles, as well as completely digitising its data by 2030 to give a more “definitive” record of property ownership.

“In the future world where people get their shopping delivered by drones and travel in driverless cars, I’m not sure it’s going to be acceptable for us to say, ‘the way you register property with HMLR is post us a PDF that you’ve signed’,” said Abbott.

He continued: “Rather than what we have at the moment, which is an organisation that takes in 20,000 applications every day to make changes to the register – we want to apply digital technology and processes to make us into an even better organisation.”


Digital Street

Top of HMLR’s plans to digitise its registry, HMLR is exploring what a digitised registry could enable in the future – through its ongoing research and development project, Digital Street.

In 2017, HMLR hosted a hackathon with industry stakeholders, and created three proof of concept projects as a result.

The proof of concepts included a ‘Property Adviser’ tool which could tell buyers property information and provide advice; an ‘Instant Mortgage’ tool to give information about a person and property, as well as allowing an immediate mortgage offer; and a ‘Transaction’ service which could record on a blockchain the property exchange.

Mortgage Solutions has previously reported on the potential challenges that these proposed concepts could pose to advisers and conveyancers.

However, Abbott was keen to assuage concerns over HMLR tools that might cut out advisers or conveyancers, saying that such fears are misinterpretations of HMLR’s intentions.

“The reason we’re doing [Digital Street] is to learn about how best to best digitise the register, and how a digital register could enable all sorts of weird and wonderful innovations to happen in the industry,” said Abbott.

He continued: “And indeed, to have a conversation with the industry about whether this is the direction we should be going.

“But it’s not a product or a service that we’re planning on delivering, it’s about working with the industry to do R&D on what might the benefits of a digital register be.”


Adapt, or atrophy

However, Abbott didn’t pull any punches either, warning that those who are not evaluating their strategies in the face of technological change could lose out as the industry moves forward – and miss out on the opportunities that come with innovation.

“When you look at other industries, you can see that technologies such as AI and so on are causing disruption,” said Abbott.

He added: “It would surprise me if it didn’t do the same in the conveyancer sector and the lending sector.”

Abbott said that during the Digital Street hackathon, HMLR learned that with a fully digital land register combined with various datasets, one could start building tools that could “use software to make decisions that humans currently do”.

He said: “Digital Street is a project we’re working on that explores what you can do with the digital register. In order to do that, we’ve built a bunch of proof of concept projects.

“It’s not Land Registry saying that we’re building an AI conveyancer, it’s about HMLR and the industry exploring together what’s possible in the future.”

“You have to take a step towards the technology and understand how it will disrupt your industry, and take advantage of it,” said Abbott.

“That for me is the right sort of strategy – rejecting it or ignoring it is a path to being made obsolete.”


Opportunities ahead

Indeed, Eddie Goldsmith, chairman of the Conveyancing Association, agrees that the industry is in need of a shake-up – and says that tech disruptions might create opportunities to focus on providing advice.

Goldsmith said: “Everyone working in the homebuying and conveyancing industry know that our present system is not fit for 21st century clients. It takes too long to complete transactions, the stress level between offer and exchange is unacceptable – the journey is fraught with stress.

“Most of the conveyancing process is admin. And in any admin process, whether mortgage or conveyancing – it can be replicated by machines.

“In certain circumstances clients will need individual advice on a specific matter – that’s fine. But we all have to be aware that our roles are all under threat for the future.”

But Goldsmith says that if developments like adviser chatbots could take away the administrative parts of the process, advisers and conveyancers alike could focus on giving the human touch to the property transaction process.

“I think it gives us an opportunity, if the hum drum admin stuff is taken away, it gives us an opportunity to give that personal advice to the client and be with them throughout the transactions,” said Goldsmith.


What’s next?

HMLR has already started making digital injections in the homebuying process – it is set to allow borrowers to sign their mortgages online, as well as moving to publish digital records to provide homebuyers with information on how well their conveyancer is performing.

The Land Registry is also planning a second round of consultations on the Digital Street project in the coming months, where the original collaborators will be invited back to talk about the proof of concept tools developed in the initial hackathon.

“Whether we like it or not, all of us will be impacted by these sorts of technologies,” Abbott continued, “We know we have to move and have some interesting and potentially challenging conversations about how to adopt and exploit digital innovation.”

He added: “I hope the industry will not be shy in telling us what kind of Land Registry it is that they want.”

“Then we can make sure we are the best that we can possibly be.”

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