Leaked NSW Treasury document reveals billions to be made by land title registry operators

A leaked Treasury document reveals NSW’s land titles registry is earning $130 million for the taxpayer each year as the government comes under pressure to ditch its privatisation plans.

The “strictly private and confidential” sales pitch to potential private operators of Land and Property Information (LPI) talks up the billions of dollars to be made in profits with the booming property market.

In a further sales pitch, the “Request for Expressions of Interest” document says the winning bidder would gain the “first mover advantage” if it wants to capture and consolidate registries across Australia.

The EOI paper, co-authored by investment bank JP Morgan, reveals for the first time that LPI, with 3.9 million titles, made $190 million in revenue and $130 million in profit in 2015-16.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian speaks at a press conference with new Treasurer Dominic Perrottet. They are spearheading the LPI transaction. Photo: Wolter Peeters

It’s been speculated the Berejiklian government is hoping to receive an upfront payment of $2 billion for the right to run LPI for 35 years. Based on the new figures, LPI could generate $2 billion profit in less than half that time.

Under the heading “investment highlights” it says LPI is the “largest and most active land registry in Australia” and the “single source of truth” that provides “essential, monopoly services”.

Secondly, it says the operator will be exposed to the “long-term growth dynamics of the NSW real estate market”, which will be driven by a 50 per cent population boom and the construction of 43,500 dwellings each year over the next 40 years.

“This is forecast to result in the addition of approximately 1.8 million titles over the next 40 years,” the EOI booklet reads.

Thirdly, it says prices of regulated products will be tied to Consumer Price Index, offering the operator “pricing certainty”.

Fourthly, it says there is the “significant scope for business optimisation” that could involve dramatically cutting costs by “implementing automation” and “cost management initiatives”.

Staff at NSW’s Land and Property Information protested the government’s privatisation plans last June. Photo: PSA

And fifthly, it divulges the fact the winning bidder will gain the “first mover” advantage if it wants to “consolidate other government-owned land registries across Australia”.

At present, the South Australian Labor government is in the process of privatising its lands registry and it is understood the Victorian government is watching the NSW sell-off with interest.

The Land and Property Information keeps the official record of land ownership. Photo: Mark Merton

In Western Australia, the registry’s IT has been controversially outsourced – with no tender – to its own privatised subsidiary Advara, which has ambitions to operate land titles offices in other states.

But, around the world, the spread of such privatisations has been stopped. In Canada, the Nova Scotia government decided last April “it was not the best option … a government-led approach offers certainty”.

Land and Property Information currently maintains 3.9 million titles. This is expected to grow by 1.8 million over the next 40 years. Photo: Land and Property Information NSW

The UK’s Tory government conceded last November that privatisation was not the best route and its land registry “will remain in the public sector”.

The NSW government plans to splash the one-off payment for the 35-year concession on rebuilding Parramatta Stadium and revamping ANZ Stadium.

In June last year, it split the original LPI into five discrete units. It isolated the one, profitable unit “Titling and Registry Services”, branded it “LPI”, and began the bidding process.

LPI now has three revenue generating functions: document registration services (such as property ownership transfers and discharge of mortgages), titling and plan services (creation of or changes to land parcels), and information delivery (providing of land title records).

Opposition grows

Lawyers, real estate agents, surveyors, property developers, unions, historians and investigative journalists are among the peak professional groups that oppose the long-term lease of the 150-year-old registry.

They fear privatisation will lead to the degradation of LPI, higher costs for businesses and consumers, increased risk of errors and frauds, and increased risk to the security of private and sensitive data, such as marriages, deaths and bankruptcies.

The government earlier said there will be safeguards such as minimum service levels, penalties, and step-in and termination rights, to maintain the integrity of the system. Prices of regulated services will go up only by CPI.

“Our priorities during this process are maintaining the confidence of the NSW public in the titling system and promoting improvements, innovation, investment in technology and increased efficiency,” Gladys Berejiklian, as Treasurer, said last year.

The concession holder must assist and co-operate with the Registrar-General, including gaining his or her approval to create non-core services, such as blending data sets.

Bidders preparing final offers

It’s understood four consortiums are in the binding bid stage: Macquarie’s MIRA with Link, Borealis with its portfolio company Teranet and Computershare, Hastings Funds Management with First State Super and property player Advara, and private equity giant The Carlyle Group.

Private equity firm Affinity Equity Partners has quit the race, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Each bidder will tour the land titles office in Queen’s Square in Sydney CBD and take part in a series of brief presentations by LPI management before lodging an “unconditional and fully financed”, legally binding bid in late March.

The EOI stage closed at the end of October last year and the indicative bid stage closed before Christmas.

The EOI document says the NSW government “reserves the right to involve or deal with any parties, including, without limitation, those who have not complied with requirements outlined by or on behalf of the State in respect of the binding bid stage”.

The binding bid stage includes the submission of due diligence materials such as “legal, financial and tax, business optimisation and insurance due diligence reports”.

Government denies access

The Law Society of NSW has rebuked the government for the “breadth of the exclusion from public access of information” related to the concession.

The government has routinely denied Fairfax Media requests to access relevant documents because they are marked cabinet- or commercial-in-confidence.

Under the Baird government, Ms Berejiklian and Dominic Perrottet spearheaded the privatisation move. They are now Premier and Treasurer, with Victor Dominello taking over the finance portfolio.

Andrew Best and Jeremy Larkin, managing directors at JP Morgan, are leading the government’s sale advisory team.

The government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars on external advisors: Gilbert and Tobin for legal advice; KPMG for accounting, tax, separation and business optimisation advice; BIS Shrapnel for commercial and economic forecasts; Mercer for actuarial advice; and Willis Towers Watson for insurance advice.

Source: Esther Han, “Leaked NSW Treasury document reveals billions to be made by land title registry operators”, The Sydney Morning Herald, February 1, 2017

Australia Government Growth Land and Property Information Land Title NSW Treasury Privatisation
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Leaked NSW Treasury document reveals billions to be made by land title registry operators