It is a sinking feeling that many experienced property developers are familiar with. You line up your title plans with the plan of the adopted highway and there is a gap between the two.
Occasionally, a third party has created a deliberate ransom strip but just as often such a gap arises by mistake. For example, when the property to be purchased was first registered, the Land Registry may have drawn the title plans up to either side of a red line on the original conveyance plan. Left behind is a sliver of unregistered land in between, the thickness of that red line on the conveyance plan.
On the face of it, you have a problem. Your lovely development site doesn’t have access to the public highway and you don’t know who owns the unregistered land in between.
In the words of Corporal Jones: “Don’t panic“. There are a number of workarounds that might easily solve your problem, for example:
1. Rectification: The Land Registry may be prepared to rectify the plan for your title if there is evidence to suggest they simply made a mistake with their original plan.
2. Amend the highways plan: Likewise, a highways search plan is only as accurate as the Council employee who drew it up. If it appears a mistake has been made it is worth asking the Council to amend its search plan.
3. Ad medium filum: Land Registry Practice Guide 40 recognises this rebuttable principle i.e. that the owner of land abutting a road also owns the land beneath the road up to the mid-point of the road (for adopted roads, the relevant Highways Authority owns the surface of the road).
4. Insurance: Defective title policies are a quick solution where it is unclear who owns the ransom strip but from experience it can also be obtained in certain cases where the ransom strip is registered. Make sure you speak to your insurer prior to seeking to acquire rights over the ransom strip direct from the owner. Once an owner is on notice of your intentions then insurance will likely be unobtainable.
5. Interpretation of Land Registry boundaries: Land Registry Practice Guide 40 supplement 3 explains that the boundaries on a Land Registry plan are normally classed as ‘general’ only i.e. not definitive. Consider the lie of the land on the ground (is there an obvious boundary feature?) and you may be able to rely on interpretation to get you over the line (excuse the pun).
So to continue the Dad’s Army theme*, where you encounter a ransom-strip situation ignore Private Fraser – your development is not necessarily “doomed” – rather, in the words of Captain Mainwaring, “don’t tell ’em” or, at least, don’t tell the owner of a possible ransom strip anything before you assess your options with your solicitor and insurance broker.
Addendum: My most memorable experience of the issues referred to above came when acting for a client purchasing land for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The acquiring authority’s powers permitted it to compulsorily purchase land to either side of a red line on a plan resulting in a strip of land about six feet across that was not subject to the CPO. Alas, this six feet lay directly across the route of the railway line itself and so was essential for the success of the scheme. Cue lengthy negotiations with the landowner who, fortunately, opted against the ‘nuclear’ option of seeking an injunction to prevent the shiny new Eurostar trains from ‘trespassing’ across his strip of land…
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*Other BBC sitcoms are also available.