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back to article PAF! MPs go postal over postal location data sell-off by Coalition.gov

MPs have accused the government of short-sightedness, after it agreed to offload the Postcode Address File (PAF) as part of the sale of Royal Mail. The PAF contains location data for tens of millions of postal addresses across the nation. The parliamentary public administration committee said in a report, which scrutinised the …

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PAF 18 years out-of-date

PAF is 18 years out of date. I live in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Search for any HU postcode and the county will show as Humberside. Humberside was abolished in 1996. I complained to Royal Mail about this and their response was that they no longer kept the PAF updated.

So who cares if 18 year old data was given away?

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Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

It should have been kept up to date, yes, but it should also not have been put into a position where it is the proprietary property of a privatised entity who is now in a position to demand whatever price it likes for information which is of substantial value in non-commercial contexts as well as commercial ones.

Exploiting PAF for commercial gain is something I have no problem with, but by putting into the full control of a private entity with no real obligations concerning it re: public access means that things like open-source map applications may well find it harder/more costly to get accurate postcode information.

I'm glad to see that the committee was able to take a wider perspective on the issue in their conclusion, but I've no doubt that whoever is in government, they will ignore this conclusion as it's not in line with what they already want to do (see also David Nutt & co's advice re: current drug legislation).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

"Search for any HU postcode and the county will show as Humberside"

Not sure where you get that from, everywhere I search is HU as being Hull.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HU_postcode_area

http://edwardbetts.com/postboxes/HU.html

http://www.royalmail.com/postcode-finder (HU1 1AA)

It's also based on main sorting office and not your location. I know we have Birmingham one, despite being in a different county, as my parents have a Dudley one, again being in a different town and county.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

The PAF is fundamental to RM's (Royal Mail's) business. That it has become the de facto standard for everything from insurance to NHS resources is NOT RM's fault. Arguably, RM owns that data, the clue is in the name: Postcode Address File. Who do you go to to get a new postcode? Not some organisation in government. You go to Royal Mail. That Royal Mail happened to be a publicly owned organisation until last year is irrelevant to the fact that they own the PAF and the commercial rights to it.

Case in point: Recently a case of someone wishing to update their address with their insurer after moving to a brand-new estate caused the insurance company to CANCEL their insurance because the PAF file used by the insurance had not yet been updated with a new post code for the estate. Royal Mail pointed out that because the owners/developers of the estate had not been in touch with them to ensure that a new post code was generated for the estate, they didn't know there was one. And hence neither could they tell the insurance companies that there was in fact a new estate.

So, again, who owns what post codes were originally designed to do? The GPO, now Royal Mail. Thus the Royal Mail owns it.

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Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

Exactly. Postcodes may now be used for all sorts of things, but their primary use is delivery of mail*.

We actually could do with a different system for other things, which is not controlled by the Post Office. Everyone just hijacked the postcode because it was easier than putting a purpose-made system in place.

* Actually, for sorting mail for delivery, but it comes down to the same thing.

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Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

And as the government runs this country, they can take it back for a £1 and if anyone does not like it, they can argue the toss with the Army, sorted!

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FAIL

Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

Arguably, RM owns that data, the clue is in the name: Postcode Address File. Who do you go to to get a new postcode? Not some organisation in government. You go to Royal Mail.

Wrong. Public information, along with all public IP, may be managed by government departments or private institutions but is owned by The Crown not the particular department. This is a very clear difference.

Royal Mail may have updated and used the data but the data itself had value as IP and was Crown owned. Just because the postcode file is fundamental to their business doesn't mean it should be removed from public ownership and given to them.

And I don't buy the idea that RM isn't responsible for the fact that postcodes are crucial to the business of other public and private organisations. The government as a whole are responsible for this development through years of development (and probably promotion) of use of postcodes. Royal Mail was a part of, and later regulated by, the government and therefore shares that responsibility.

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Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

The PAF is updated regularly. That is how RM & resellers makes money selling it.

Companies could well be using outdated PAF files which are not up to date as they don't want to pay the yearly licence.

However counties are no longer part of an address, therefore most databases allow the end user (business) to choose a county type to use - the old 1970s style, the newer unitary-authority ones or the one RM was using before they scrapped them.

Officially, however an address shouldn't have a county.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

Not sure if it's still the case, but the licence fee was to use it. Even if you didn't update it, you still had to pay an annual fee to continue using the data. Been some years since I was involved though.

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Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

"Not sure where you get that from, everywhere I search is HU as being Hull"

If you use the commercial licensed (ie. paid for) PAF database within an application then the county is included.

For example, if you go on any comparison website and request a quote for car insurance, you will be asked for house number / postcode and the address will include your county.

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Re: Thus the Royal Mail owns it.

Solution - transfer PAF and the responsibility for updating it to the Ordnance Survey

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Thus the Royal Mail owns it.

That would have been the logical thing to do, yes... even before RM was spun off.

Ordnance Survey have a version of the PAF (which is released under the Open Data thingy in government) that includes geographic waypoints, which is more useful for navigation et al.

You will notice that there are quite a few post codes that are *not* navigable, which again illustrates that the PAF was there to help deliver mail, not be the directory of all things.

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Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

The mail delivery purpose occasionally trips those other users up, too; I recall a few years ago when I had to update my insurance policy: my car was being kept in a car park - on a road which had no postcode. The first insurance call-centre drone couldn't understand this: 'it must have a postcode! Everywhere has a postcode! Phone Royal Mail and ask them what the postcode is, they'll tell you!' No: they confirmed the road in question had no postcode, since it had no mail delivery points on (just the car park in question, which of course does not receive mail).

Fortunately, the call-centre supervisor was a bit more clued-up and understood this - maybe had the same issue before - and had a sensible workaround (using the nearest postcode that did actually exist).

Of course, none of this would be a problem if they weren't abusing a mail delivery system for mapping purposes...

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Re: Thus the Royal Mail owns it.

@Frankee Llonnygog - Solution - transfer PAF and the responsibility for updating it to the Ordnance Survey

Expect the OS isn't far away from the same result as Royal Mail - www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-2312853/Met-Office-Ordnance-Survey-slated-sale-amid-new-wave-expected-privatisations.html

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Re: PAF 18 years out-of-date

The Royal mail no longer updates "postal" counties, these were the pre 1975 Administration boundaries however with significant changes in Admin areas over the last 40 years it is no longer viable to provide a valid link between post towns and counties and these elements were not needed in a mechanised sorting system and were retained only to aid residual manual sorting.

IF the PAF was a free open asset it would be easy for user groups to create there own versions of geography based on the positionsof each address.

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Obviously..

> The proposal, which we expect to finalise very soon, aims to widen take up, encourage greater use of PAF, and meet the current and future needs of users, solutions providers and developers of PAF based products in today’s marketplace.

So that's a price hike, then?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obviously..

"...proposals to simplify the PAF licence"

DEFINITELY a price hike. :-/

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Re: Obviously..

"So that's a price hike, then?"

Yes, of course it is. IIRC from press reports at the time, Cameron was specifically advised not to include the PAF in the sale, and specifically and personally decided to include it. Like every decision the shiney faced Etonian twerp makes, absolutely at odds with the best interests of the country, and common sense.

Presumably all his City chums were telling him what a hoot it would be to sell off an asset used by every satnav, every delivery firm, every utility, every council etc. This of course is just the start - in due course we can expect a foreign company to buy out Royal Mail, and then they'll sell the PAF to a private equity firm who will give the whole bundle a good squeeze.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obviously..

Whaa whaa whaa, Tory Tory whaa whaa whaa. Like Labour hasn't cocked things up? Who sold Britain's gold at rock bottom prices? Oh yeah, that Gordon Brown bloke. Who was he again? Oh yeah... LABOUR.

This has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with business. The PAF is owned by Royal Mail, no matter how much the MPs now throw a wobbly. Why should Royal Mail have been deprived of one of its assets (i.e. the PAF), just because... Oh, nevermind. It's pointless to argue this.

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Stop

Re: Obviously..

Why should Royal Mail have been deprived of one of its assets (i.e. the PAF)

Again, Wrong. It wasn't the Royal Mail's asset, it was The Crown's, they are different.

The government can sell off any body or agency it wants, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all of the Crown owned assets *associated* with that body/agency have to be sold with them. They could have still managed the PAF while not owning it.

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Re: Obviously..

"Like Labour hasn't cocked things up?"

Of course they have. But "the other boys are worse" isn't an excuse in my book.

"Why should Royal Mail have been deprived of one of its assets..."

Hold on, berk. Until last year we used to own the Royal Mail. The uses that the PAF has been put to, as even the select comittee have noticed now make the PAF a piece of national, critical infrastructure. And one that I've already paid to have constructed. So on the grounds that I've already paid for it, and everybody needs it, I see no reason why the chumocracy should flog it off for near enough peanuts.

And if you think that Royal Mail should keep this historic defintion of what is "theirs", how about they keep "their" pension deficit, rather than I have to fund it?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Obviously..

Well, Ledswinger, you brought up politics by talking about how Cameron (a Tory) personally approved the inclusion of the PAF in the Royal Mail spin-off and how "every decision the shiny-faced Etonian twerp takes" is counter to the country's best interests. The point was made that this is not about politics, which aligns with the "the other boys are worse" reasoning, yet you were the one to bring political leaning into the argument.

Calling commenters berks hardly makes you look any better, if anything, it makes you look like someone who got called out, doesn't like it, and resorts to petty name-calling.

As for the Royal Mail pension deficit, I have to agree. It should have been spun off along with the rest of it, but since most of those on the pension scheme were public employees (I'm not referring to just pre-sale, but rather before Royal Mail was given more... independence), those liabilities are technically the government's.

What *should* have happened would be the closure of the pension scheme to new members at the time Royal Mail was made more like a private sector organisation, and a new one created so that when the time came to spin off the whole kit & kaboodle, any deficit in the new scheme would've gone along with it.

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Holmes

Now they realise!?

"MPs argued on Monday that the move was motivated only by "short-term gain".

Have they been asleep for the past thirty-odd years?

I know, I know...

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Am I now risking prosecution for writing a post code on a letter !

Have the new owners Copyrighted / trademarked / IP it !

Is it safe to write a post code ever again !

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"The government must never make a similar mistake."

...just wait till they get their way with medical records.

*sigh*

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Bit political

Royal Mail should never have been privatised. And now it has been, tell me what is "royal" about it, exactly ? What gives this private company the right to parade the royal crest ?

Personally I was happier with a publicly owned RM, even if it was less efficient.

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Re: Bit political

"And now it has been, tell me what is "royal" about it, exactly?What gives this private company the right to parade the royal crest?"

Soon to be the RM (Republican Mail), and it goes something like this...

---------------------------------------------------

Coalition MP - I say, my good man, I seem to be lost, I can't find the House of Commons. I know the post code, could you be a good chap and tell me where the hell I'm going?

RM [Republican Mail] - Wha mate? Anover thing you can't find with both 'ands? Awight, awight geeza, it'll cost ya though.

Coalition MP - <Sighs> OK, OK, how much?

RM - You look like a well 'eeled gentleman, lets call it a monkey, a nice round five 'undred quid.

Coalition MP - <Splutters> That's outrageous - that was publicly owned data!

RM- Not any more mate - we saw you lot comin' a mile orf.

Coalition MP - But this is daylight robbery! Extortion!

RM - Market forces mate, market forces. Gotta keep them share 'olders happy, aint we?

Coalition MP - <Sits down in shock> Dammit man, I've sat on my elbow again, why does that keep happening to me...

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Storm in a TE4 Cup?

How is this different to information like BT's phone directory listings?

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Re: Storm in a TE4 Cup?

Two days and no response from the downvoters.

I ask again, how is the postcode system any different to BT's phone directory information?

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Move all the house numbers around. That'll fool 'em.

All houses to have GUIDs.

All people to get them too in chips under their skin.

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Possibly the last chance to fleece the mugs

As things are going now, Google and quite a few others including the open streetmap project are also sorting out their own versions of the PAF. The open streetmap project's one is completely free, too, and Google can be persuaded to let you look at data fairly cheaply. The result here is that any big outfit that wants their own mostly-accurate free version of the PAF can get it now, and as these free versions are being continually updated and corrected, they're only going to get better over time.

As the free versions of the PAF get better, the advantage gained by paying for the proper PAF diminishes, so the monetary value of the proper PAF also diminishes. The decision to sell it off now was probably the right one, as this was probably the last moment in which anyone would bother to pay good money as opposed to rely on the free versions.

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http://www.royalmail.com/postcode-finder

Those rapacious private sector companies, they really know how to exploit us poor innocent consumers. I just took a look at Royal Mail's find-a-postcode site and you know what they told me? "You can still do 50 more [free] searches today." Heartless.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: http://www.royalmail.com/postcode-finder

Of course, that's cookie-based. You delete the cookie and you carry on :-)

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Re: http://www.royalmail.com/postcode-finder

@D Moss Esq - Royal Mail's find-a-postcode site . . . 50 more [free] searches today

And that is simply carrying on from the publicly owned days. However, now the data is private - let's see how long it is before you can only search "at a fair price".

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Re: http://www.royalmail.com/postcode-finder

Sure Don, let's see.

If and when they start charging let's see if we can guess whether charges would have been imposed if the company had still been owned by the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills. The way they are for accessing Companies House data, for example.

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Re: http://www.royalmail.com/postcode-finder

50 lookups might be fine for you, but the likes of Google Maps, Apple Maps etc. won't be so lucky. They probably pay a pretty penny to get that data. I wonder if they pay for access to ZIP code data in the US?

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You can certainly get most postcode info for free at the moment.

I have such a database..

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Take a deep breath ....

""The government must never make a similar mistake. Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again."

Start laughing (in a cynical and weary manner).

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Barriers to entry – 1

One of the arguments against charging for large-scale access to PAF is that the cost represents a barrier to entry.

That's supposed to be a bad thing. What do we know about barriers to entry? We don't like them.

What's wrong with barriers to entry? They deprive society of the fruits of innovation.

That's the line taken by Stephan Shakespeare in his report, An Independent Review of Public Sector Information.

Mr Shakespeare is the founder and global CEO of YouGov, the polling organisation. As you might imagine, he thinks you can find out the truth by polling people. Looking at health care data, for example, he says: "70% ... of total respondents think that we should make public all that we can about our health care system ...".

Convinced? Are you happy that giving away health care data is the right thing to do because 70% of respondents to a YouGov poll said it is?

Before you make your mind up, consider this.

Mr Shakespeare conducted not one but two polls and 18% of respondents in one poll said they were "highly informed" on data issues and in the other poll that figure was 4%. A fuller conclusion might therefore be this: "Between 82% and 96% of people asked said they didn't know what they were talking about but nevertheless 70% of them think that we should make public all that we can about our health care system so we should".

Sometimes you can't help thinking the barriers to entry should be set a bit higher.

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Barriers to entry – 2

Mr Shakespeare is a very generous man. He thinks the PDG data should be given away for free. Charging for it is a barrier to entry.

A lot of data is managed by Companies House, the Land Registry, the Met Office and Ordnance Survey. These four together are apparently known as the "Public Data Group" or "PDG" for short.

Admittedly, Mr Shakespeare's generosity would cost us a bit. Currently the Exchequer earns millions of pounds a year by charging for PDG data. That hole would have to be plugged somehow but, according to Mr Shakespeare: "As government would no longer need to purchase the [PDG data] itself, the direct loss to the Exchequer on an annual basis is in the order of £143 million ... It seems a straightforward decision to invest £143m to make Trading Fund data widely available is a relatively small price to pay to leverage wider economic benefits far exceeding this by orders of magnitude".

It seems ... straightforward ... relatively small price to pay ... leverage wider economic benefits ... orders of magnitude ...

It may seem that way but just how straightforward is this investment decision really? Is that a relatively small price or a relatively big one? How many orders of magnitude?

He must know the answer, mustn't he, otherwise he wouldn't have written that on p.30 of his report.

The strange thing is that he also writes on p.30 that: "Forecasting future benefits is also hard to predict. How businesses and individuals might use datasets in the future to generate new products and services and by implication impact economic growth, is equally unknown".

What we seem to have here is a straightforward guess leveraging several orders of magnitude of hope.

Once again.

Those barriers to entry.

Set them higher.

Meanwhile, you can kind of see a certain hard-headed logic in selling Royal Mail with its PAF intacta.

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Re: Barriers to entry – 3

Barriers to entry deprive society of the fruits of innovation.

What fruits of innovation?

Mr Shakespeare doesn't tell us in his report.

He appeared in front of the Public Administration Select Committee with Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt on 22 October 2013. You can watch them performing here. But you still won't find out what it is we're missing.

Professor Sir Nigel is chairman and co-founder of the Open Data Institute, of course. The ODI think that open data will lead to all sorts of valuable innovative apps. Although they haven't said which apps those will be yet, nor how valuable.

He's also chairman of the midata programme. That's an initiative of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. They want us all to have personal data stores (PDSs). PDSs will empower us, apparently, and they will help us stupid people to make rational lifestyle decisions and, what's more, they'll make the economy grow. How? By creating an enormously valuable industry of innovative apps, obvs.

What innovative apps?

Glad you asked.

Professor Sir Nigel set up the midata Innovation Lab (mIL). mIL were let loose, like innovation tigers, and they produced five prototype apps. The Prof was so pleased with these prototype apps that he said they would allow us to "get to the future more quickly".

"Prototype", here, by the way, means "not really apps, you can't buy them". Take a look at them. They're just like all the other apps you can already buy on Google Play and the iTunes App Store and the Windows Phone store. There's nothing innovative about them at all. They are not Professor Sir Nigel's HS2 to the future.

So what are we missing? What innovation is society being deprived of by barriers to entry? Answer, stuff you can already buy in the market for once-off prices like 69p.

Therefore there was nothing wrong with selling the PAF along with Royal Mail.

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Anonymous Coward

Typical Govt b0llox

'The PAF was included in the sale to boost the Royal Mail share price at flotation.'

'The committee concluded that the sale of the PAF had been a "mistake" '

It can't be both, if it was included to boost the share price, it was not a mistake, it was a deliberate choice. I think I'll move to the Crimea, it can't be worse than here.

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Re: Typical Govt b0llox

Crimea.

Now there's a country that understands barriers to entry.

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Re: Typical Govt b0llox

If it was supposed to boost the share price on flotation, it just adds to the feeling that the price set for the flotation was way too low. We expect some short-term profit, it's the way these things are done, but that huge jump in the share price suggests a mistake was made.

It was an intentional action, but that doesn't mean it was not a mistake.

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So where were the committee...

When the due dilligence was being done on the contents of the RM sell off? And why didn't they make more of an issue of it at that point?

Sleeping on the job no doubt.

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Re: So where were the committee...

"And why didn't they make more of an issue of it at that point?"

Select comittee's are parliamentary, not governmental, and often chairman'd by the opposition, so they wouldn't necessarily be consulted on the specifics of government decision making. They exist primarily to offer a (nominally) cross part group of interested MP's to hold government to account (albeit with no teeth). Because they aren't "insiders" to the decision making, as often as not they are commenting after the event.

As far as can be seen Francis Maude (who often gets a bad press) lobbied for the PAF not to be sold, and Michael Fallon lobbied successfully to ensuring that it was, so I'd blame Fallon. Purely coincidental that he used to be a director of a City brokerage.

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Facepalm

Ownership matters

I live in a district where the postcodes don't exactly match the district council boundaries, which became a problem when our housing estate was built, thirty years ago. The post delivers in our corner from a different, nearer, post office than to the rest of the district.

Unfortunately, the district council believes they own the postcodes, and wish to assign the main post code to the whole district. To enforce this, they always deliver all their mail with their assigned post code.

The post office, knowing it to be incorrect, changes it manually, and puts it on a slow delivery pile, to encourage mail senders to use the correct code. So an official mail from the district council takes a week to deliver from 3 miles away.

My data management skills have given me insight into the cause of the delays, but are not sufficient to persuade the two institutions to stop deliberately misunderstanding each other. I am reduced to calling them names. After 30 years, I am running out of names, and would welcome suggestions.

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Re: Ownership matters

wish to assign the main post code to the whole district.

I don't understand how this can be the case. A postcode refers to a street, or part of one, at most. Street number + postcode identifies a house, how can anyone put a postcode for a "district" on a letter?

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Re: Ownership matters

Street number + postcode identifies a house. NOT TRUE

eg -

Station Road Ware shares same postcode as Station Court Ware SG12 9UT

Marine Drive Torpoint shares same postcode as Enterprise Court Marine Drive PL11 2EH

Having police knock you up at 4.00 AM because they did not know the difference emphasises there is a problem.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ownership matters

Britt, this is exactly the problem... governmental organisations who believe they own "it" (the main postal prefix). That's why Slough and Maidenhead are still spitting bricks at each other...

Who cares if you have an SL post code? Does your mail arrive? Yes. Excellent. But noooooooo... Maidenhead doesn't want to be associated with SLough. Good heavens, the poor dears would be horrified to know you live in an SL post code.

Of course, the encouragement to use the PAF as the de facto standard for everything, has made this worse (post code lottery, anyone?).

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