It makes economic sense for address records to be made freely available as a single national resource.
The late Tony Benn achieved two notable rationalisations as the Labour government’s postmaster general: banning pirate radio and implementing a national system of postcodes. In neither case did he reckon with market forces.
Pop music thrived despite the BBC’s cold embrace, while postcodes, introduced as a white heat efficiency measure - Private Eye had fun with the concept - evolved to become a full-blown commercial product. Today some 37,000 businesses license the Postcode Address File (PAF), generating a £27m annual revenue stream which Royal Mail fought tooth and nail to protect on privatisation.
In an astonishingly short-sighted decision, presumably to ramp the share price, the government agreed. It now shows signs of repeating the mistake with another key part of the national information infrastructure, the Land Register of England and Wales. I’ll come back to that, after I set out a few fascinating facts about address databases.
The first thing to know is that, although widely used for purposes ranging from navigation to credit-scoring, the PAF is not a reliable database of homes and businesses. It is essentially a list of 28 million mail ‘delivery points’ - understandable, because that’s all Royal Mail needs to do its job. However, it does not list premises like garages and public lavatories, known magnificently as OWPAs (objects without postal addresses).
Neither do Royal Mail codes pay attention to other organisations’ boundaries: the postcode TD15 1UY, for example, spans the English-Scottish border, rendering it useless for directing electoral and courts mail.
To fill the gap is a product called the National Address Gazetteer, run by GeoPlace, a venture set up by the Local Government Association and Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency. It has about 34 million addresses, with accurate position data and unique property reference numbers (UPRNs) where available. These are matched every month to Valuation Office Agency records.
These databases don't necessarily match. Street names may be spelt or styled differently: the same Hounslow street appears as Ravensdale Gardens in the PAF and Ravensdale Road in the local authority’s land and property database.
Meanwhile, houses with one physical address and post delivery point may be divided into numerous household units without officialdom being informed. This posed such a problem for the 2011 national census that the Office for National Statistics created a new national address database for the purpose, drawing in data from publicly owned records.
The exercise cost £12m and the database was used only once, mainly because the government-owned agencies that supplied the data wanted to protect their copyright.
Now, instead of this mess and confusion, would it not make sense for public bodies maintaining address records to pool their data to create a single national resource? And then to make it freely available to cut costs to businesses and public services, and to encourage a market in smarter addressing products? This is the argument behind the campaign for creating an open national address gazetteer as part of the national information infrastructure.
It has just been the subject of a consultation by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: of 17 responses , only two opposed the idea. They were Royal Mail and a body called the PAF Advisory Board.
Gazette readers might want to get interested for two reasons. Conveyancers may see the utility of a free and easy way to check whether, for example, documents referring to access to rubbish bins at 23A Acacia Avenue, Garden Flat 23, Acacia Avenue and Dunroamin’, Acacia Avenue relate to the same property.
More widely, though, we should be sounding alarm bells at short-term decisions which get us into these messes in the first place. The department responsible for the PAF fiasco is now pondering the future of the bulk of Land Registry, and will no doubt be under the same kind of pressure to hand over parts of the national information infrastructure to its new commercial ‘partners’, with endless costs down the track.
For all their differences in ideology, the coalition’s ministerial team sometimes shows no more commercial nous than the late Tony Benn.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor