Budget 2016: Government to spend £5 million rebuilding postcode data it sold off in 2013

Amid all the budget announcements yesterday, one pledge seems to have so far been overlooked in the press.

Chancellor George Osborne promised to spend £5 million to build an open address register. It’s exactly as it sounds: an open, freely available database with all 29 million UK postal addresses and 1.8 million postcodes.

That database is also something that the government actually used to own until three years ago, when it was sold off as part of the Royal Mail privatisation. We’re now spending £5 million to get it back. Yet more evidence that the sale of Royal Mail may not have been a good deal for taxpayers. (See also: what is a graph database?)

However, let’s not get too bogged down feeling irritated with the ineptitude. The move has been welcomed by experts in the field and is certainly a positive step.

The government’s (now defunct) Open Data User Group described national addresses as “the single most fundamental set of core-reference data we can identify” in a February 2013 paper.

It argued making the data openly available would improve transparency, boost public sector efficiency, improve economic growth as the data can be used by businesses and reduce the cost and complexity of licensing.

Peter Wells, associate at the Open Data Institute, said the ODI was “relieved” to hear the news as address data is a vital part of the UK’s data infrastructure. It will unlock an estimated £110 million of value for UK businesses, charities and government.

However the institute also issued a warning.

The budget included one short line which said “the government will shortly consult on options to move the operations of the Land Registry to the private sector”.

It looks like politicians sometimes don’t learn from their mistakes as much as we would like – or perhaps the lure of privatisation is just too strong for this government.

“When the UK Government privatised the Royal Mail it lost control of address data. As well as the years of lost benefits, the UK now has to spend time and money rebuilding address data. It cannot repeat the same mistake with land data,” Wells said.

For the sake of the ‘hardworking taxpayers’ the government frequently likes to claim it is defending, let’s just hope Osborne listens to him.

UK budget 2016: the implications for UK tech

ComputerworldUK editors discuss the implications of the budget.