Free Our Data: the blog

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

Postcodes: local authorities vs Royal Mail still arguing; want to sign a petition?

We’ve got intellectual property rows, petition and a question you might be able to answer this time.

This week’s Guardian returns, in Royal Mail fails to address database issue, to the vexed question of whether RM will let local authorities retain some intellectual property in the addresses they provide to it, as well as paying them for it – neither of which happens at present.

According to leaked letters we’ve seen, RM isn’t in favour. But the authorities are. Impasse. And as the article points out,

The saga provides a graphic example of an issue at the heart of Technology Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign – the bureaucracy and waste that ensue when state bodies treat vital data as an asset that must be made directly profitable.

The addresses go into the Postcode Address File, which unlike thousands of post offices

is profitable, making £1.58m on revenues of £18.36m in 2005-06 (Royal Mail’s postcode database reveals its profitable side, April 26). Councils in England and Wales spend about £2.5m a year on postcodes (paid to Ordnance Survey and commercial businesses, as well as Royal Mail).

After protests last year over price rises, Royal Mail said that it would consider “reasonable remuneration” to local authorities supplying data on new addresses. But negotiations on the terms have foundered over intellectual property rights.

This one could run and run – and already has.

This ludicrous position is a result of conflicting responsibilities placed on state-owned bodies. As a commercial (albeit state-owned) enterprise, Royal Mail has to make its assets pay, and that includes a national resource such as postcodes. Local authorities are being squeezed by council-tax caps and efficiency targets; selling data is thus a rare new source of income. The agency, meanwhile, wants to ensure the future of the National Land and Property Gazetteer, which it sees as a vital tool for modernisation. Its commercial contractor, Intelligent Addressing, is embroiled in a separate dispute with Ordnance Survey over addressing data.

The Free Our Data campaign proposes that all public bodies to free up their address databases, funded from central taxation. We’re not alone. A petition at urging the prime minister “to end the address dispute between local government, Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey” has 370 signatures.

In case you haven’t been to see (or sign) it, here’s the address mess petition. (It was started by Robert Kimber of Luton council; he’s been quoted here earlier.) We found it via the NLPG’s April e-zine – which is itself an interesting byway. The NLPG, of course, is the one which handles all the addresses (except for Birmingham’s. Why doesn’t Birmingham belong to the NLPG? Answers in a comment, please.)

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