It’s not always easy to find out who owns a derelict or vacant building in Dublin.
You can scour planning applications, search newspaper records, and knock on neighbouring doors. You can log in to the Land Registry or rifle through the Registry of Deeds and hope you come across the up-to-date name of an owner.
But you will often come up short. Does it matter?
In theory, the main avenues to ascertain who owns a building or piece of land should be the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds. Both of these services are under the umbrella of the Property Registration Authority of Ireland (PRAI).
In some cases, the system of land registration itself dates to acts passed in 1865 and 1891, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom.
But others date back further than that even, says Tom Kennedy, the chief property and title researcher at Dublin City Council. “Some of the titles in the ownership of the Council were acquired by Royal Charter from Prince John in 1192,” he said.
Since 2011, if you purchase any land that has not been subject to registration, you are obliged by law to register it. If you have owned that land since 2010 or earlier, however, it can stay unregistered until it changes hands, said Kennedy and several other experts.
The two services — the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds — are similar but distinct. The Land Registry’s job is to register someone’s legal right to a property, to the extent that it is guaranteed by the state in court should someone try and take a case claiming that they own it instead.
About 90 percent of all land in Ireland is “registered” in this way, according to statistics published by the PRAI. But in County Dublin, only 76 percent of land is registered, which is the lowest in the country.
While there are no specific figures available, the amount of registered land in Dublin city centre seems to be significantly lower than that too, if you search the database at Landdirect.ie.
Kennedy said that this is in part a “historical legacy”. Along with Cork city, Dublin between the canals has the highest amount of land not registered in the state.
They were the main inhabited areas in the medieval period, and from then onwards the Registry of Deeds was where all registration for the cities took place. “Once you had registered with [them], that was the way you continued,” he said.
Confusingly, “unregistered” land means that any records that mention its ownership are dealt with in the Registry of Deeds, said Kennedy. Deeds registered here include records of mortgages, sales, and other actions that have taken place on the property, but not ownership itself.
Nobody is obliged to register either their ownership, or indeed any deeds they are party to with regard to most property, unless they bought it after June 2011, said housing expert Lorcan Sirr of DIT.
Take, for example, this week’s Vacancy Watch, dealing with the old City Arts building on City Quay and Moss Street. The Irish Times and others reported on its sale in early 2004. The Registry of Deeds has records of the building changing hands, and of the new owners taking out mortgages on it.
But if we’re trying to be sure that they still own it, it proves difficult, because they haven’t taken the time to register that it is indeed theirs.
It is in a person’s interest to register with PRAI, says Suzanne Mead, a civil engineer who has dealt with unregistered land in the course of state-led projects like the construction of the M6.
It can make future transactions run more smoothly, and in ownership disputes, the registered interest will take priority in court, she said.
It is also in the interest of the state. Kennedy said that his section in the council deals with clients as wide-ranging as the Fire Brigade, the Rates Department, and the Department of the Environment looking for the identities of sites’ owners.
One of the missions of PRAI is to serve as a stepping stone towards a universal system of registration, and the online system at the moment is part of that, said Mead.
But the potential shift towards online “e-conveyancing” could lead to new problems, says Kennedy, the chief title researcher with Dublin City Council.
“All properties with unregistered title will be left behind,” he said, and the state would have to use more resources to track down unregistered titles.
Do We Need to Know?
Not everybody cares that it’s not easy to work out who owns buildings.
It isn’t really a problem, said Councillor Andrew Montague of Labour, who is head of the council’s planning committee.
If the council wants to find out who owns a site lying vacant, it can place a compulsory purchase order on it and announce in newspapers that the building will come into their possession unless the owners come forward, he said.
“I do think that the council should use that power to CPO things more often, though,” Montague said.
The council has statutory powers to find out who owns something, said Patrick Costello of the Green Party. It can ask the Office of the Revenue Commissioners who has paid stamp duty or local property taxes on a property, for example.
But others say it’s not that simple — and argue that there is a public-interest argument for more transparency.
“It’s certainly a problem around the country, where local authorities might have a small legal department,” said Graham Hickey, conservation officer of the Dublin Civic Trust. If it’s an effort to work out who owns something, they might not bother.
It can also be frustrating for communities that want to know owns a run-down or misused building in their area, perhaps so they can make a complaint.
An Taisce’s heritage officer, Ian Lumley, says that “our medieval system” is a major problem for his organisation, which often tries to work out who owns derelict buildings. They had trouble tracking down the owners of Aldborough House, for example, he said.
There are other scenarios where some kind of universal registration would be useful, he said, like if there were a gas leak in a derelict building and they needed to reach the owners.
Land is now registered once it is sold, though, says Peter Stafford, director of Property Industry Ireland. “There will be an inevitable slow process towards universal registration, because if you take a long enough time frame, that is when it will happen,” he said.
Inevitably, there is a conflict between the principles of openness and transparency, and the principle of respect of an individual’s privacy. (Since 1967, all government land has to be registered.)
People have a right to privacy, said Fine Gael councillor Kieran Binchy. In his view, land registration should not become a stick with which to beat property owners.
Hickey of Dublin Civic Trust, on the other hand, says that the benefits to the public realm from compulsory registration would “absolutely” outweigh the argument about privacy. In an urban context, “civic knowledge of who owns what is very much in the public interest”.
Whether a universal register would lead to universal knowledge of who owns what, though, is not certain.
In countries with compulsory systems, property owners who want to hide can find a workaround, says housing expert Sirr of DIT: “People set up holding companies in places like the Cayman Islands and other places to hide the beneficial interest.”
Kennedy, Hickey, Lumley, and others say it’s pointless to go and find out who owns a piece of property, unless you enforce whatever laws they need to have held against them.
“There’s numerous cases where the ownership of a building is well-established, the person involved is a few minutes’ walk away, and yet no effective action is being taken,” said Lumley. Equally, many of the worst offenders live continents away, he said.
Says Hickey, of Dublin Civic Trust: “Even if it’s relatively straightforward to find out who owns something, it’s a lot more difficult to pursue them.”