Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


How home information packs give local government a pricey monopoly

In today’s Guardian, “Government ducks the issue on property search data” looks at how the arrival of home information packs will give local councils a monopoly in land searches for properties. Trouble is, it’s not one that they’re entirely happy having because it ends up costing them.

However, local authorities can be sticky about releasing “unrefined” information. Nearly two years ago an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) found that one in 10 authorities provided no access to records of Town and Country Planning Act notices – even though by law this information should be openly available for free. A personal search company told the office that one third of local authorities do not provide information on highway developments.

Councils argue that they are in a cleft stick. The fee levels set by central government for access to certain items of unrefined data do not cover the cost of dealing with personal search companies. On average, each request takes council staff 70 minutes. They therefore have to subsidise this service out of fees charged for compiled searches. Charges range from £55 to £269, with an average cost of £119.

What’s the problem?

This is another example of what happens when a public body with a monopoly in raw data tries to sell products compiled from that data.

Couldn’t the government do something definitive?

The government responded this month with a consultation document on “Good Practice Guidance” that urges councils to play fair. One key concern of the OFT – price transparency – is ducked entirely. This will be subject to “a further consultation exercise later this year”.

It’s almost strange how the government keeps putting off big decisions like this. It’s almost as if they were waiting for someone important to leave, or someone important to take on a new job so that things could settle down.

Meanwhile we’re expecting the DTI response to the OFT report on public sector information to be released any day now. Let’s hope it’s not bad news – it might get buried.

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