Postcodes for the public good, not for profit

View all recent articles by Luke Redpath

29 October 2009 Postcodes for the public good, not for profit

At the beginning of October, ErnestMarples.com, the free postcode lookup web service that powered websites such as PlanningAlerts.com and JobCentre ProPlus (which was developed at the Guardian Hack Day that I attended earlier this year), was taken offline following legal threats from Royal Mail.

For those who aren’t aware, unlike in the US where postcode lookup data is freely available (with relatively low cost for high-volume usage), in the UK the copyright on this data is owned by Royal Mail, who charge approximately £4000 per year for the right to use the data. Whilst this may be a viable option for some businesses, it is prohibitively expensive to many not-for-profit services.

There is also the ethical issue as to whether or not Royal Mail should be able to make a profit from this data. On one hand, Royal Mail justify the high cost because they have to collate and maintain the postcode database. I would argue that as out government is the primary shareholder of Royal Mail, that this factual data should belong to the public.

A response from my David Burrowes MP

In response to the threats towards ErnestMarples.com, Tom Watson MP wrote to Royal Mail Chief Executive Adam Crozier regarding the situation. He also raised an Early Day Motion. I wrote to my local Tory MP David Burrowes asking him to support the EDM. Yesterday, I received a disappointing response from Mr Burrowes explaining that he would not be able to support the EDM – essentially, he felt unable to support any movement to place restrictions on Royal Mail’s business activity given their current crisis:

“I am wary of proposals that would see the Government place additional restrictions on the use of such wholly owned assets by Royal Mail, particularly given the precarious financial state of the company”

He continues:

“For these reasons, I feel unable to sign the Motion at this time. Nevertheless, I certainly share your sentiments about the importance of charity and not-for-profit organisations”

His full response is available for download. I find the idea that freeing up the postcode data would be of some kind of severe detriment to Royal Mail to be somewhat sidestepping the real issue of whether Royal Mail should be allowed to keep this information under lock and key but given everything that is happening with Royal Mail right now the response is not entirely unexpected.

In the meantime, the campaign continues. If you haven’t written your local MP yet, why not take 10 minutes to drop them an email. You can also get the latest news directly from the Ernest Marples blog.