Why did OneSearch Direct decide to work with Hoowla?
‘We are increasingly looking at ourselves as a data business in the search industry and we have a new mantra about cooperation with other parties and even with competitors. One company can’t be an expert in everything. So as a data business we want to combine with other data people — innovative people. Hoowla is very good at what it does with brains just out of university — it’s a young business with a fresh approach. And we’re very good at what we do — over22 years we have built an unrivalled and vast database containing electronic and therefore searchable local authority information. Working with companies like Hoowla will make that information more accessible to our customer base. So it’s a good fit.
Hoowla has a light business model — lawyers can use their case management systems; they can pay as they go; there are no legacy systems involved. I’d been keen to move towards a simplified system that brings information closer to the lawyer for a long time and working with Hoowla seems the perfect way of achieving this.’
Plans to privatise the Land Registry have been shelved — what’s your view on that?
‘The current government obviously decided it was too hot a potato to take on prior to an election so they aren’t going to make a decision until after the 2015 election. It will come back again if the Tories get in.
No-one likes too much interference from government and the Land Registry is another example of it. It’s all this being unable to tell what politicians will do, like with HIPs — that being scrapped cost my business an absolute fortune. We had been encouraged — more or less forced — to change our business model because all of a sudden we were no longer selling our searches to law firms and were selling them to estate agents instead. We had 40% of all the local authority searches going into HIPs and then it was — literally — scrapped overnight. There wasn’t even a rundown —we were left with all this collateral damage. We had 300 staff and I had to make 200 redundant. At the time we were lucky to remain in business.
I now hear a lot of estate agents bemoan the loss of HIPs — they didn’t realise what they had until it was gone. Things like the boundary plan which was part of it — all that has been lost. So we’re back to the purchaser not being clear of what they’re buying until they get to legals, which is nonsense really.
The fear with the Land Registry was that the government would create a monopoly — and then put it up for sale. I’m not against the LLC1 project — I think the councils have made a mess of it and it’s quite right that somebody sorts it out and this is an opportunity to rectify this. But the private search industry shouldn’t be damaged at the same time as they’re taking away the local land charge function — that’s my only caveat.’
Do you think HIPs might be brought back?
‘Yes although it will be called something different, probably Home Reports. Someone will say: ‘Oh that Home Report system they have in Scotland is good’ and it will basically be HIPs under a different name.’
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing conveyancers at the moment?
‘PI and compliance are the big issues — PI in that insurers have gradually put premiums up and are looking at small conveyancers as the highest risk, leading to some of them being priced out of the market. Compliance-wise, the SRA have come along and created a whole new box ticking industry. So lawyers now have to do the conveyancing and be the box tickers at the same time, making it almost unsustainable for self-employed lawyers to make any money at conveyancing — it’s too low margin. There has been a move towards bigger companies in conveyancing and that’s going to accelerate. It’s tough for the small companies right now.’
What about consumers — how is the current housing market for them?
‘Buying a house is difficult in this country. Where are your warranties and your guarantees? You get more when you buy a vacuum cleaner in John Lewis. Buying a house, you don’t even get a log book like you do when you buy a car.
The problem is that there is no commitment so buyers can threaten to buy a house and then drop out with no penalties. In many systems around the globe there are penalties — people go into property buying as a serious matter and if you fail to complete you’re hit with costs.
The Scandinavian system has about three stages and people can get their titles by going to a counter and paying £50. Our system is archaic in comparison. In Scandinavia it’s estate agent-driven with government guarantees and lenders tied in with government obligations.
This caveat emptor that we have in this country — they don’t have that. They protect the citizens and if you buy rubbish you have redress against the other parties.
The HIP was a move in the right direction — a push towards people selling a house having to spend money upfront. And then you get committed buyers because they have more information — it drives the dilettantes out.’
Do you think the rises in the current property market are sustainable?
‘London is like a different planet right now — the rest of the world wants to come and live there and that’s inflating prices. So it’s all buyer demand driving prices in London with the usual spin out to the Shires but not beyond — the rest of the country is still having a slow recovery.
The only booming places outside of London are Aberdeen, where property has rocketed, and maybe bits of Orkney. But that’s all oil and gas-related.
So all this talk of — bang, we’re out of recession. It’s just not quite true yet in residential property.’
OneSearch Direct’s Head Office is in Glasgow. What do you think it will mean for the business if Scotland achieves independence?
‘We started in Scotland in 1992 and expanded into England — then we crossed the border and we don’t trade in Scotland now. We have about 50 sales and data collection people based in England and our Head Office is here, in Glasgow.
Independence wouldn’t alter things very much. I don’t believe it would make much difference to business life — nothing significant anyway.
My view is that Scotland has so much in common with England. What’s the point of fragmenting the UK when the world actually needs to be more inclusive? Yet, Britain seems to want to come out of the EU and now we in Scotland want to fragment it even further?
The interesting thing for me is it seems that it will be a very close vote — hopefully in favour of no — and then, I imagine, that will lead to Devo Max. If and when that happens Scotland will have a set of federal powers which, I’d guess, the regions of England might like to emulate. Otherwise you have the rump of England — most of England outside London — with very little say. So I imagine English regions like Northumberland would canvas for more governance over their own affairs and then we’d have a more federal Britain with more power in the regions.’
And what does the future hold for OneSearch Direct?
‘As a business we are increasingly looking at ourselves as a data business rather than a search business — we now see ourselves as a data business in the search industry. Making our vast database of local authority information accessible to different markets is key. So how we improve the quality of our data to an even higher degree is the most important thing to us. Data is King. Obviously what is happening at the Land Registry is a challenge in the marketplace for all of us in the search sector and those that approach it from a data perspective will be the ones that survive and thrive.
We are looking at publishing the examples of the quality of our data on a like-for-like comparison with local authorities within the next three months or so, under the name OneSearch Validate. We’re hoping to get 1000 comparisons done and published.
We’ve done it in the past for internal purposes and where we have clients who have decided — for various reasons including compliance — not to use a private search but to use the council search we’ve done data accuracy audits against, say, five of the council searches. In seven out of ten instances of doing these audits we have found quite serious errors in council searches.
There are reasons why mistakes are made. Local land charges offices are like clerks’ offices where they collect all the bits of paper from the various council departments and collate it — often these places are just not process driven enough. A lot of the council staff move on quickly whereas we’ve had staff for 20 years. And there’s often no resource and no morale. The information isn’t joined up electronically, like ours, and it can take several months for items to be correctly registered and appear on land charges and CON29 records. We can get data on to our database within a maximum of five days. So that’s a big difference.
The amount of wasted time for lawyers, reading these council searches, is huge. And it’s not only poor data — often the interpretation of the data is poor, duplicated and in the wrong templates.
We go to each council department and get the minutes of meetings, reports, agendas and access their various registers and extract data from source. We don’t wait for that to be sent off to Land Charges — instead we go direct and within days it is available on our database.
So when the Land Registry comes along and says: ‘This is how we’re going to do it — we’re going to source records.’ Well, we have been doing that for 20 years!’