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Northern Ireland aims to break free from BT's 27-year reign with £125m procurement of land registry systems

Telco won't be gone until 2026 as Land and Property Services plans epic project timeline

Northern Ireland's Land and Property Services, part of the Department of Finance, is planning an IT procurement worth up to £125m to replace an ageing BT system running since 1999.

Costs on the BT contract to build and run LandWeb, a land registry system, more than doubled since it was first signed more than two decades ago leading to investigations by government auditors.

The Land and Property Services is now looking for a "Land Registration Delivery Partner" to help build a "modern digitally-enabled ICT solution that will support the transformation of Land Registration Services," according to a tender document published before Christmas.

"It is envisaged that the new solution will be responsible for but not limited to the replacement of the ageing stand-alone legacy systems with a new digital Land Registration solution that supports the design and delivery of joined-up services," the contract notice said. "The new solution will be user-friendly, customer-focused, support web-based technologies, digital self-service platforms and seamlessly connect and integrate with the LPS Enterprise Integration Platform to share and consume data and business events."

The procurement will replace the current LandWeb contract, which is currently provided by BT, a spokeswoman for the Department of Finance confirmed.

Last year it awarded the telecoms-turned-IT-services group a £20m extension on a contract that had already ballooned in value by 138 per cent. BT won the initial contract in 1999 and was awarded a further four-year extension to July 2026 without asking for bids from other suppliers.

The Department of Finance said in a tender notice last year that there were "technical reasons relating to the bespoke and complex nature of the solution which would lead to substantial duplication of costs and unacceptable technical risks which would not allow for the service to be transferred to another supplier."

However, in 2008 report, the Northern Ireland Audit Office said the lack of transferability of the intellectual property rights in the LandWeb Agreement placed the services in an over-dependant position with BT.

The contract to replace BT is set to be awarded in September 2023, although the BT contract will continue to be in place for nearly three more years after.

In a statement to The Register, the DoF said: "Land registration systems are technically complex ICT projects which take a number of years to procure and build. The current schedule assumes 21 months for procurement and up to 30 months to build and implement the new solution. Land Registry NI has to continue to provide services to the public while the new system is being built. The extension of the Landweb contract to July 2026 ensures continuity of the services up to the point the new solution goes live."

LandWeb is a fee-based service for registering and searching land rights in Northern Ireland. BT won the contract to finance the design, build, and operation of the service in 1999 for a fee originally agreed at £46m. The vendor was to recover costs entirely by receiving a set transaction fee, forming part of the charges made by Land and Property Services directly to customers.

However, a report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) [PDF] found that as of April 2019, a total of £97.89m had been paid to BT by way of unitary charges, which were inclusive of transaction fees. Total payments to July 2021 were set to reach £106.89m, it found.

What's more, the services had overcharged the public by around £39m since the 2006-07 financial year. "Although the excess is absorbed into public finances... LPS customers nonetheless continue to pay too much for the services provided," the NIAO said after acting on a tip-off from a member of the public.

According to the report, an accounting officer told the Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee in March 2010 that: "I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that if we were doing it now, we would do it differently."

The NIAO continued: "In our opinion it is regrettable that such mechanisms were not pursued further at the time of the break option, especially given the need for another extension to the Agreement from July 2019 to July 2021."

In June 2008, the NIAO found [PDF] the project and services delivered by BT had been extended resulting in an additional £19.2m being paid to the supplier up to July 2007.

The auditors also pointed out that one of the key drivers for the project was to deliver significant reductions in the fees charged for the services. But a surplus income increasing to £8.6 million at 31 March 2007, showed that customers were paying too much for the service provided.

The NIAO also noted that the agreement "precludes LRNI obtaining information on the make-up of BT's charges, costs, overheads and profits."

An earlier statement from BT said it the NIAO has recongised "progress made in digitising" the Land and Property Services, as well as the "delivery of the LandWeb system."

It said: "BT will continue to work in partnership with government to deliver the extension of the LandWeb contract until July 2026 to best serve the interests and needs of the Northern Ireland public."

The Department of Finance told us at the time: "In negotiating the most recent contract extension, the Department has secured a reduction in the cost of transaction fees and open book accounting as part of the terms." ®

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