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Council urged to prepare for surge in land search requests

Opposition councillors are urging Stratford District Council to prepare for a surge in land search requests before a freeze on stamp duty ends in March, warning that residents won’t be happy if there are delays.

Back in November 2018 the district council was forced to apologise after it was named as the slowest in the county at completing land searches, an essential part of the house buying and selling process.

Since than improvements have been made and the service is getting better with searches now taking an average of eight weeks for official searches and 4-5 weeks for personal searches.

Demand for land searches has increased steeply in recent months, following a lull at the beginning of the lockdown period with a 94 per cent rise in personal searches and a 30 per cent increase in the number of official searches, compared to this time last year.

The increase has been attributed to pent up demand from earlier in the year and the Government’s decision to reduce the rate of stamp duty to zero for houses up to £500,000.

However that freeze on stamp duty will end on March 31 2021 and opposition councillors are calling on the council to make sure it is prepared for even more demand as people rush to beat that deadline.

Cllr Susan Juned, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat group, said: “The average time for a land charge search by the district council at the moment is 8 weeks. Most people who are moving aim for a month between exchange of contract and completion, so any delay to searches can be extremely disruptive and cause major inconvenience.

“The government's current suspension of stamp duty is due to end on 31 March. We are urging the council's Cabinet to make sure that the council can deal with the expected surge in searches as house sales increase in the first quarter of next year to beat this deadline. The current saving in stamp duty can be up to £15,000 so residents won't be amused if they end up having to pay extra purely because of delays in searches.”

Cllr Anne Parry, portfolio holder for regulatory services, said: “There was an issue earlier in the year, our land searches team was directly affected by Covid and the service was suspended for a time so when it re-opened in June we did have to deal with a backlog and in August some searches were taking 10 weeks. That is now down to eight weeks and we’re continuing to make progress, we’re working around the clock to get searches done.

“All credit should go to the land searches team for the progress that has been made, we recognised that we had a problem and we’ve worked to improve the service.”

Cllr Parry added that it was not just the council’s land charges service that had seen huge demand this year, solicitors acting in the house sale process had also been extremely busy.

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