“... Land is the habitation of man, the store-house upon which he must draw for all his needs, the material to which his labor must be applied for the supply of all his desires ... On the land we are born, from it we live, to it we return again – children of the soil as truly as is the blade of grass or the flower of the field. Take away from man all that belongs to land, and he is but a disembodied spirit.”
– Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879
Recently, we have heard proposals for the privatization of the operations of our land registration system. This is not a new proposal but is a revisit of an earlier proposal put forth by the Redford government and, even before, an earlier attempt some twenty years ago.
On both of the previous occasions, I have been involved in opposing such moves. I have always been a proponent of less government but in the case of our land titles system, I am firmly supportive of government intervention.
My reasons for this apparent contradiction is based on over 50 years of involvement with private property rights, both as an employee of the Land Titles Office and as a private practitioner dealing with Land Titles on a day to day basis. I also served as a land registration consultant in Armenia a number of years ago.
When former premier Ralph Klein coined the term the Alberta Advantage, I expressed that advantage as Alberta having the best land titles system, the best survey system and the best land use planning in the world. Unfortunately, we lost the latter advantage when our regional planning commissions were abolished in 1995. Hopefully we will not lose the second link in the protection of our property rights.
Our land registration system is based on the Torrens system of land registration whereby a government body guarantees the accuracy of our title. Recently, we have seen a push for American-style title insurance, but title insurance is somewhat redundant as our Land Titles Act provides title assurance backed by the Government of Alberta.
The Torrens system is based on three principles: the mirror, curtain and assurance principles. The mirror principle indicates that the current title ‘mirrors’ the state of ownership; the curtain principle indicates that a ‘curtain’ is drawn on former transactions and it is therefore not necessary to do an historical search to determine if there are flaws in the chain of title. And, of course, the ‘assurance’ principle basically indicates that if there are problems in ownership, the assurance fund will compensate the owner for any errors made in creating the title.
Just as an aside, there used to be an ‘assurance’ fund fee charged on every transaction, but because of the efficiency of the system the fund became indecently solvent and the fee was abolished.
Alberta’s Land Titles system is a revenue source for our government and land transfer fees are considerably lower in Alberta than virtually all other provinces, and considerably lower than provinces that continue to maintain the cumbersome deed registration system that requires historical searches to ensure that a transferor has good title with no flaws.
The Torrens system has been acclaimed around the world as one of the best. It is acclaimed for its reliability, simplicity, cheapness (of transactions), speed and suitability. Our present reliable, efficient, functioning system must be retained as a service guaranteed by government to protect private interests in our real property.
As Hernando de Soto stated in The Mystery of Capital: “Where are the codes of conduct that govern the use and transfer of assets, if not in the framework of formal property systems?” We cannot allow our property rights to be held hostage to a profit-oriented private enterprise.
Ken Allred is a former St. Albert Alderman and MLA.