Making ownership one click away

Five a.m., on a Summer day earlier this year, and Jennifer Henderson is in the post room at Meadowbank House in Edinburgh.

A physicist, Henderson was transformation director at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. More recently she worked on the UK’s building safety programme,in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, as deputy director at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Why then, here at this time, opening and helping sort the approximately 2,000 envelopes and parcels – containing plans, estate records, and bundles of legal documents – received daily at the headquarters of the Registers of Scotland?

The opportunity to run an organisation, and one which is undergoing digital transformation, made the job advertisement attractive. Family connections with Scotland sealed the deal. Since being appointed ‘Keeper’ – and chief executive – last April, Henderson has made a point of spending time getting to know each department.

“Where they were confident enough that I wouldn’t mess it up, they generously let me help,” she laughs. From opening the post, Henderson then followed property transactions through each stage of the process of them being registered.

Without the Registers of Scotland (RoS), homes and buildings could not be bought or sold securely. The ground on which we stand would be up for grabs. It forms part of the foundations of the nation’s economy.

Scotland has the oldest inventory of property in the world, dating back to 13th century when the first national land register was housed at Edinburgh Castle; a claim to fame, certainly. But, with the World Bank using the efficiency of a country’s register as a key economic measure, the transition from a paper-based to digital system is vital.

Our ultimate goal is to make everything digital, submitted at the press of a button – Jennifer Henderson

RoS has undergone its own, internal, digital transformation over recent years; a journey symbolised by its new office in Glasgow, at St. Vincent Plaza overlooking the Kingston Bridge.

It is on one floor, as opposed to RoS’s previous Glasgow home which was spread across seven. The same number of people share a space half the size, but on a recent visit it felt busy, not crowded. The impression is of a San Francisco start-up that has suddenly become successful.

There are some rows of desks and monitors, but also many break-out areas, cubicles, meeting rooms, and ‘social spaces’ of varying sizes and hues. At regular intervals, ‘living walls’ add to the naturalness of the environment.

Lunch at your desk is not allowed (“is discouraged”, perhaps), enabling employees from different departments to mix in the social areas. In fact, there is no such thing as ‘my desk’; people are free to login wherever; again, to encourage the circulation of people and ideas (there is an ‘innovation lab’ where employee suggestions for better ways of working are prototyped).

Henderson has been, and still is, on an ‘A to Z’ (Ayr to Zetland) tour of Scotland, engaging with those who depend on the organisation. She is leading a team with an enormous challenge. Not all land or property in Scotland is registered and RoS has been mandated by the Scottish Government to fix that by 2024.

Property owners can volunteer to register and the sale or remortgaging of a property acts as a trigger for registration on the Land Register. Ultimately, the Keeper has the power to transfer property titles – from the old General Register of Sasines onto the Land Register of Scotland – without an application from the owner.

Because the centuries-old Sasines is based on descriptions, not drawings – ‘Ma barn neist tae theauld bridge aat the lowse i’ theroad’, sort of thing – the other big headache is moving everything to a map-based system. Fixing that requires modern technologies, and real skill. Once achieved, however, Henderson hopes RoS will be a truly paperless organisation.

It is also developing digital tools, for solicitors and lenders principally, that could revolutionise the way property is transacted in Scotland. A secure online service for confirming that a mortgage has been repaid – the DDS (digital discharge service) – was introduced last year.

The next step will be the ability to digitally confirm that a mortgage has been taken out on a property; a digital securities service. There are some technical, and potentially legislative, hoops to jump through before this is possible. What will definitely stop the flood of post into Meadowbank House is making registration of ownership digital.

“Our ultimate goal is to make everything digital, submitted at the press of a button,” said Henderson. Until then, the Keeper will be back in the post room this winter helping with the pre-Christmas flurry of post.


Download a PDF of FutureScot Magazine in The Times Scotland 15.12.18.