Compulsory acquisition of land of unknown ownership – why early claims are important

23rd March 2023

There has been some uncertainty as to the procedural requirements for an authority to compulsorily acquire land for which it has been unable to reasonably identify the owner. This will typically be unoccupied and unused unregistered land. The Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber) has helpfully clarified the position.

In Metropolitan Borough Council of Stockport v Unknown Owners [2023] UKUT 53 (LC) the council had obtained a compulsory purchase order (CPO) authorising land acquisitions to enable construction of a new relief road. However, the ownership of five parcels of land were unknown. The question for the tribunal was what procedure the council must follow to acquire such land.  Several important points were identified by the tribunal.

When will an unknown owner potentially be notified?

The tribunal explained that the attempted notice of the compulsory acquisition of land with an unknown owner only occurs during the stage for confirming the CPO. This is as opposed to the subsequent later stage of executing a compulsory acquisition of land duly authorised by the CPO.

There are two statutory notice requirements as to unknown owners for a CPO. A notice must be given before submitting a CPO for confirmation and another after the CPO has been confirmed. If ownership is unknown, and notices cannot be served personally, then notice must be affixed to a conspicuous object or objects on or near the land and published in local newspapers. Outside these statutory requirements there may likely have been earlier informal notices issued by the authority in its attempt to try and identify an owner.

How does the authority acquire the land of unknown ownership?

If ownership is known, then the authority can compulsorily acquire land authorised under the confirmed CPO by the statutory procedure involving the issue of a notice to treat, or the alterative procedure involving the issue of a general vesting declaration. However, where ownership is unknown a different procedure applies.

The tribunal explained the three-step procedure required by an authority to compulsorily acquire land of unknown ownership. Firstly, the authority must apply to the tribunal for a determination of the value of compensation for the land. The authority will need to satisfy the tribunal as to the steps taken to try and identify an owner. Secondly, the authority must then pay the determined valuation into court, by application to the Court Funds Office. Thirdly, and finally, the authority can now execute a deed poll whereupon the land will immediately vest in the authority.

If an owner subsequently comes forward, then they can apply to the court for the compensation held by it. It is unlikely further compensation will be recoverable or the valuation sum challengeable, especially the later it gets.

What to do if you think you have an interest in compulsorily acquired land?

The above highlights how important it is that if you think you have an interest in land affected by the CPO then you should take immediate professional advice and bring your interest to the attention of the authority as soon as possible.

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