Fee-gouging fears over proposed land registry deal

Fees for basic real estate transactions could skyrocket if the state government goes ahead with plans to lease the land titles registry, an expert has warned.

The Andrews' government is assessing a proposal to lease out Land Use Victoria, the government agency that keeps records of land ownership, in a deal that could see up to $2 billion flow into the state's coffers.

But the state's former surveyor-general Keith Clifford Bell told Fairfax he had a "hell of a lot" of concerns about a private sector player taking over the registry.

He said private operators had hit consumers with fee increases of more than 300 per cent after similar deals overseas, according to Dr Clifford Bell.

But he said Australian governments, hungry for short-term cash, continue to misrepresent the evidence that private lease deals were good for consumers.

The Andrews' government, which flagged in its May budget the possibility of a private sector deal for Land Use Victoria, said it was examining the proposal so that it could learn from the experiences of similar deals, both overseas and interstate.

At his May budget press conference, Treasurer Tim Pallas said the state government was "committed to the idea of asset recycling".

"We'll start the work of looking at the processes of how we might better commercialise the value and the asset that is the land titles office. Certainly we've seen in NSW a commercialisation of the land titles office which has returned $2.6 billion to that state," Mr Pallas said.

The long-term lease of the NSW titles registry proved highly controversial, sparking a backlash from sections of the property sector.

Dr Clifford Bell, who served as surveyor-general from 1999 to 2003, said he shared the concerns of some opponents of the Victorian proposal that sensitive information held by a private firm might fall into the wrong hands.

But the former Surveyor general, who now works at The World Bank, said his worries did not end there.

Dr Bell said gouging of consumers was a real concern, with transaction prices increasing more than 300 per cent in two Canadian provinces that reached private lease deals similar to the one proposed in Victoria.

"That has most definitely happened in Canada - both Ontario and Manitoba provinces," Dr Clifford Bell said.

He said there was a lot of evidence emerging that the taxpayers of NSW had been short-changed by their government when it leased out its land registry operation.

"The real return to the state through the [public-private partnership] versus what would have been realised over 35 years was not provided for public scrutiny," Dr Clifford Bell said.

"Media has reported 'insider' views that the sale was a bargain and the real upfront payment should have been $3 billion to 4 billion.

"Leaked government sales pitch documents stressed the billions of dollars profit that would be made by the private investor."

Dr Clifford Bell said he believed the NSW government, fixated on a short-term cash injection, overrode reasonable objections to the deal.

"The government chose to ignore widespread public opposition to the [Public-Private Partnership] and proceed," he said.

"The NSW PPP is held to be a great success by both the Victorian and South Australian governments."

The NSW government declined a request on Monday to respond to Dr Clifford Bell's criticism.

A spokesman for the Andrews government insisted the lessons from around the world and from other states would be heeded before a decision was made about the future of Land Use Victoria.

"We are undertaking a scoping study to ensure we learn from the experiences of past transactions in other jurisdictions, and that appropriate safeguards are in place to best protect the interests of Victorians," the spokesman said.

The study is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

This story Fee-gouging fears over proposed land registry deal first appeared on The Age.