Free Our Data: the blog

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

Is there a Valuation Office portal? No. Can we have one? No. Why not?…

An interesting exchange in the Commons between MarK Todd, who has some interest in matters of data availability (though we must point out he disagrees with the free data theorem – though, then again, he hadn’t finished reading the Cambridge economics report when we spoke to him earlier this week).

So here’s his first question (a written answer – Alastair Darling didn’t answer in the chamber)

Mark Todd: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what arrangements exist for the Valuation Office Agency to make the council tax list for England and Wales available to third parties for value-added use; and if he will make a statement.

The written answer, from the Financial Secretary, HM Treasury:

Jane Kennedy: Council tax valuation lists for England and Wales are available to search on the Valuation Office Agency’s website at no cost. Full copies of lists are not otherwise available without a statutory gateway.

OK, then: on 16 May, another written PQ and answer:

Mark Todd: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer pursuant to the answer of 6 May 2008, Official Report, columns 817-8W, on council tax: valuation, whether a statutory gateway will be introduced.

Jane Kennedy: Statutory gateways exist in so far as they are provided by Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 and other legislative provisions. This Department has no current plans to introduce further gateways.

I asked Mark Todd what the thrust of these questions was. He explained that he has constituents who are interested in finding out the value of houses in areas. They can get that data from local councils, in the form of the council tax valuations (which date back years). Except you can’t get it in bulk – unless you go in person to the council.

So there’s no obstacle to getting the information. The obstacle is to getting it in bulk. And the government isn’t going to make it easier to get. This is puzzling to Mr Todd. And to us, to be honest. There’s value there, but it’s being kept under wraps.

Why? The Post Office is in dire straits because too few companies are using its services to send letters. Companies that want to sell you stuff like addresses of people who fit their demographics. Yes, you can call it junk mail – but it’s easy to ignore. (I got a ton because I had a planning application on my house: lots of companies picked that up and sent me letters advertising their wares.) Even so, it’s all money for the Post Office.

Mr Todd will, we suspect, pursue this strange reluctance on the part of the government to find ways to make a bit of money from its information. He may think it should sell it. We think it would make better sense to make it free and let companies benefit from using it. But even if the ends are different, we have a common cause. We’ll watch this with interest.

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