Opinion: Address wars – an armistice?

We take addresses for granted. How hard an issue can they be? Put an address on an envelope and it gets there, a gratifying proportion of the time. Stick a postcode in a satnav and it shows you a route which usually gets you to your destination. Add an address to a name and you usually have an unambiguous reference to a single person.

The problem lies with the word ‘usually’. Get an address wrong and a parcel doesn’t get delivered; the ambulance or fire engine arrives too late to save a life; a Council Tax isn’t collected; a household gets missed in the census; you get turned away when you try to vote; you can’t get a gas or electricity supply; you are denied credit, or, worse, the bailiffs come around chasing you for a debt that isn’t yours.

Most people imagine that they have an ‘official’ address and can check that it is right. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. Local authorities have obligations, and the power, under various pieces of legislation dating back to the mid-19th century, to name streets and number properties. However they haven’t, until the last ten years, compiled these into a national officially recognised set of addresses.

When Royal Mail introduced postcodes in the 1970s they needed to compile a Postcode Address File (PAF) to inform every one of their correct postal address. In the 1980s this file could be fitted onto a single CD-ROM and began to be sold for use in computerised mailing systems. Local authorities informed Royal Mail whenever they allocated an address and that information was then used to update the PAF; so most people think of their PAF address as their ‘official’ address. Unfortunately it has no official status and doesn’t exist for anywhere not receiving post. Administrative and even national boundaries aren’t recognised in PAF addresses. They are managed entirely for the convenience of Royal Mail and can be changed by them, sometimes to the annoyance of those addressed.

In the 1990s Ordnance Survey (OS), the national map makers, licensed PAF from Royal Mail and added an accurate map reference to every address to create their own product ‘AddressPoint’.

So one would have thought that with local government cooperating with Royal Mail and OS to capture, record in databases and disseminate addresses all would be well. Everyone could get hold of a single correct address and everywhere that needed an address would have one. Sadly that turned out not to be the case and a very distasteful battle broke out.

Royal Mail has, unusually among postal authorities, chosen to sell PAF rather than give it away to ensure accurate postal addressing. Likewise Ordnance Survey, who license PAF from Royal Mail also sell their geo-coded version, except at a much higher price.

In the late 1990s local government became very frustrated with a situation where they provided free information to Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey and then had to buy it back at commercial rates. Ordnance Survey was charged by government, by then, to recover its costs by selling data. Royal Mail chose to do the same. So public information, addresses, originally allocated by local authorities as part of their public task at the tax-payers’ expense, magically changed into ’tradable information’ being sold to recover costs and make some profit, by two government agencies.

Local government didn’t like this so they set up their own trading company, the Local Government Information House, to commission a private partner to build and maintain a National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG). This was intended to compete, and eventually drive Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey out of the addresses for sale business. It was even thought that this might be accomplished by holding back address change intelligence from them, though most local authorities were advised that this may not be lawful.

The result was an unseemly argument over who ‘owned’ addresses, and who had the right to derive profit from selling them.

This came to an end when it was announced a couple of weeks ago that local government had thrown in the towel in their commercial battle with Ordnance Survey. The addressing interests of Ordnance Survey and local government are to be merged to create a partnership called GeoPlace, which will trade in address data. This is subject to merger approval from the Office for Fair Trading which has given interested parties a very short time to comment with a closing date of 23rd December.

But isn’t this all wrong? If government has decided that there should be a single definitive file of addresses, both postal and non-postal to get rid of the confusion in addressing and street naming once and for all, isn’t this going to be a monopoly? Of course it is, though in some strange way Royal Mail are to keep control of PAF, so a separate monopoly for correct postal addressing is likely to be sold off to the private sector too.

Selling public monopolies of essential public information is wrong. It is as simple as that. By all means cover the costs of collecting the information through registration charges of various sorts. Such charges, including naming and numbering fees, planning charges and land registration charges are already levied. In exchange for paying those, the public should have free access to a maintained Internet accessible file of postal and non-postal addresses. That will end the address wars, reduce many, sometimes life-threatening, errors and maximise the public benefit from this vital set of public data. I hope Ed Davey and Eric Pickles are listening.

Cllr Bob Barr is Executive Board Member for Planning and Regeneration on Warrington Borough Council and has had an academic and research interest in addresses and addressing for the last 25 years

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  • I really hope this situation can be sorted out. Royal Mail refuse to recognise my house address (ironically they told me this by sending a letter to it) because the council haven’t told them about its existence. The council say they have. 2 years later and much buck passing between the landlord, council and royal mail and we still haven’t completely sorted out the situation.

  • Bob – In relation to RM’s Postal Address File (PAF) I think it is important to remember that PAF isn’t actually geographically-based but is merely a tool designed to facilitate the delivery of mail to premises/households covered by the Universal Service Obligation (USO).

    Therefore a Postcode actually is more representative of the physical distribution of RM delivery depots and the different walks attached to each depot rather than the actual geographic location of a mail recipient.

    Various criteria apply as to what constitues a ‘mail delivery point’ and I don’t have access just at the moment to them but they define what addresses are actually covered by the USO and eligible for mail delivery . An important off-shoot is that commercial companies can check whether an address actually exists, in a physical sense, and isn’t just a private postbox in the middle of a field.

    But it ‘s worth remembering that RM’s legal responsibility is to deliver mail to an address and not to a named individual and the organisation does not keep records of private occupants at delivery addresses.

    I would therefore totally disagree that RM needs a super-duper one-fit adress database as it doesn’t need one based on geography or even people’s names. It needs a pared-down one to allow it to deliver mail efficiently and it actually has that in PAF.

    RM is not responsible for the naming and numbering of streets which is a local authority function. LAs pass this information to the PAF address management unit which allocates the address to an existing postcode or sometimes creates a new one if say a housing estate or industrial park is built. There are always problems with coversions or previously split properties going back to sole ownership and RM is in the hands of LAs and their planning/building control departments to update us.

    RM is also under continual pressure from householders wanting to change or tweak their house name or address for a variety of reasons – none of which contribute to a more efficient mail delivery in my experience and generally cause a great deal of confusion especially with our new automated processes.

    A lot of ‘good’authorities have very efficient address management liasion officers but others are woeful and I am afraid that general cut-backs will worsen this situation. One thing that desperately needs done is some kind of standardisation by authorities on how premises/homes are numbered or named.

    I could write a book about the number of variations I have seen for the likes of lower basement flat – from Garden Flat to Conservatory Flat and a hundred others. This is no problem with a regular postie on a round who sorted it before he went out on his walk. He knew that the lower basement flat was the ‘dunny’ under the main stairs and down the flight of stairs at the back with the door on the left the basement flat and the one on the right the lower basement flat.

    These days have gone and we have walk-sort machines that means the mail arrives pre-sorted and anomalies are likely to have been rejected earlier in a far-away mail centre as having and incomplete or unknown address. We seldom have a regulat postie on a lot of runs who knew where the address was and even if they didn’t know the address they would recognise the name. All of this local knowledge is being lost at an increasing rate every day that passes.

    The other thing is councils who name a street say Primrose Road and as the estate grows bigger add Primrose Way, Primrose Gardens, Primrose Path, Primrose Walk, Primrose et alia are a nightmare. Human beings and even machines don’t actually tend to ‘read’ the full address so you can have sorting problems and utter confusion out on deliveries with identical house on identical streets with only subtle name changes.

    OK I’m back from my rant lol. I here what you say Bob about providing a basically free system of supplying address information. RM mail does give limited free access through its website to any user needing to check a postcode. But maintaining a 30 million entry database which is constantly changing is highly expensive.

    We also have the sell-off of RM ongoing and I can see no mention of PAF in this so I can only assume that it will be sold as a separate entity and possibly not to the new owners of RM who would then no doubt charge RM for use of the info as just another commercial enterprise.

    We then end up with the problem that a lot of feedback on address changes which councils miss or neglect to advise us of is picked up by delivery staff and fed-back to PAF. Obviously RM won’t do this for free in the future which possibly introduces further complications.

  • @ Greg Posted 21st December 2010

    Greg – RM can put an address on their Postal Address File even if the Local Authority haven’t carried out their legal obligations.

    The simplest way to do this is to send a copy of your Council Tax bill to RM Address Management Unit, Admiral Way, Doxford International Business Park, SUNDERLAND, SR3 – sorry can’t remember rest of postcode but you can get it from RM website and also a phone number for Address Management Unit. Just add a note asking for the address to be added to PAF.

    If you don’t have any documentation then you have to check the national valuation roll website – http://www.voa.gov.uk/ – and see whether your address is listed – it’s done under council area – if it is listed take a print-out of the entry and send it to the address above.

    If it isn’t listed then I’m afraid there’s nothing RM can do to add your address as it’s a matter for the local authority. RM must abide by the legal requirements before they can add an address to the Postal Address File.

    Hope that helps a bit Greg.

  • Just to add to the fun – here in the land of Song we have councils who use the Welsh version of the road name and or town , as well as or instead of the english,
    If HMG want a single rationalised database of all postal addresses, council tax locations, geographic, etc then there is a huge job for someone to do. In these times I cant see LA’s RM or Geoplace doing this for free.
    – How about BBC licencing dept !

    Jon – How do RM address mail to Travellers , Barges etc ?

  • @simonsez

    Basically for mail delivery it has to be a fixed address which Council Tax is paid on or at least which appears on the Valuation Roll.

    So a permanently moored boat or licensed travellers site would have addresses that could be delivered to but if someone is permanently on the move then they wouldn’t have an acceptable fixed address. Although it is my experience that boat-owners are particularly ingenious when it comes to mooring and picking up the postcode of the marina, the local pub or whatever 🙂 But automation does make this harder to pull off. Always a problem that greater efficiency does tend to snuff-out diversity in a lot of situations.

    I have to say that Address Management isn’t a particular expertise of mine but I am generally au fait with the mechanism. The biggest probs are developers who build a development and people and move people in and we don’t have an address to deliver to.

    We can get round this if the developer lets their site office be used as the delivery point. In the old days the mail would end up at the local delivery office even with a general address and first part of the postcode and local knowledge could take over.

    But now with automation, if the address isn’t in the system then it becomes difficult to actually get the mail to the relevant local delivery office which means the local knowledge isn’t given a chance to operate.

    There is also the real difficulty that staff are cut to the bone in a lot of offices and ‘walks’ have been assessed – so a hard pressed delivery guy/gal is very unhappy at delivering mail which isn’t actually counted as part of their workload.

    I have to say that by and large the PAF system works well but with all computer systems it’s down to the quality of the input – rubbish in, rubbish out.

    By the way I note what you say about the unified database but as I explained in my main post – RM’s delivery addresses aren’t actually allocated postcodes on a strictly geographic basis so I don’t know how you could easily provide a good ‘fit’ with other geographically fixed addresses and to be honest I’m not sure how useful it would be anyway.

    Commercial companies currently purchase the raw data from different suppliers – including RM – and put it into a form which suits them or their customers that they resell to. I think it’s important to recognise that different purchasers have widely differing needs and you really have got to provide a myriad of flexible solutions rather than one monolithic database.

    And how often would it be economically viable to actually update such a database? This could well mean ending up with a more inclusive one but inferior because it was always well out of date.

  • Oh should have said simonsez – doesn’t matter that road name or town is in Welsh – as long as postcode and street number is there the letter will get to the correct delivery office and be delivered. Cheers.

  • JimK Pendle 21st Dec '10 - 7:34pm

    The GeoPlace Q&A document is not clear on whether a mutual team created to deliver shared services for more than one local authority would have free access to the address products. And would any software as a service be able to link the background geo spatial data using the address products?

  • EcoJon

    You clearly understand the management of PAF very well and I accept your points. However, it would be possible, to direct all communications between Local Authority naming and numbering officers which lead to a possible change in PAF through an open, Internet accessible, database. In fact this early change intelligence would also be of interest to the utilities, and many other agencies.

    Likewise, without changing PAF in any way, Royal Mail could be obliged under their universal service obligation to maintain certain fields in the National Address Gazetteer with their postally preferred variant of an address and the postcode.

    The aim of the exercise is to cut out duplication cut out cost and make definitive address information available in a timely manner to all who need it. If the two Core Reference Data Files , the National Address Gazetteer and a changes pending file, were publicly available a level playing field would be set and anyone, Royal Mail, Ordnance Survey, the commercial address management companies etc. would be able to add value to the core reference data and trade in that added value data as they wished.

    It is Royal Mail’s obsession with preserving a commercial monopoly in correct postal addresses, and apparently wishing to carry that monopoly into private ownership, that I object to.


  • Bob – I don’t know if you area aware of all the consultations going on around PAF and you can get a flavour at: http://www.pafboard.org.uk/documents.html

    I’m not involved professionally with PAF so anything I say is purely a personal opinion and if I was involved I couldn’t say anything anyway. As I see it, PAF can either be retained as a basic aid to assist automated sorting of mail for subsequent delivery or be turned into a product with an unlimited amount of bells and whistles such as electoral roll, valuation roll, OS data and a host of other things.

    Cost is obviously a huge factor in deciding direction and this is complicated by the current privatisation proposals which I think are disastrous. However back to PAF – it is commercially ring-fenced within RM who actually pay for use of the database as do other mail companies as well as third-party users and purchasers.

    The financial arrangements are complex but PAF could be sold to a private buyer and to be honest in the current political and economic climate I think that’s what the government will go for to raise revenue. To be fair it might be the only way to raise the capital needed to extend the scope of PAF which won’t be taken within the remit of the USO or they might want to recoup some of the cost of the £8 Billion pension scheme liability and not extend PAF. In any case the USO is likely to be cut-back by whoever buys RM, to a five day a week service.

    It’s also clear that RM would want paid for its IPR in any use of PAF info embedded in a ‘bigger’ product and I assume if PAF were to be sold so would the new owner.

    I really don’t believe that RM has the technical expertise, let alone the will, to realistically expand PAF and if it isn;t sold-off it will remain as a very low-level but specialised tool doing the job it currently does. There are other more sophisticated products in the market but they are significantly more expensive.

    PAF has about 27 million addresses in the database with around 2 million changes a year which needs quite a lot of admin support as it currently exists.

    One bit of me agrees with what you say but I just don’t think this will happen at RM with all that’s going on. I’m also not convinced that the Tory end of the coaltion government will be handing out free information access to the public which could be sold by their pals in business to end users for a nice profit.

    Hope some of this helps.

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