The Royal Mail’s troubles may damage a vital part of the UK’s digital infrastructure

a postal van crashed into a wall

The Royal Mail is in trouble and its future is uncertain. Its future is regularly debated in the newspapers, and high on the political agenda, but the headlines have missed that the Royal Mail plays a key role in maintaining the UK’s official list of addresses: the names and locations of the houses and offices where we live and work.

This list of addresses is vital infrastructure for the UK. If the Royal Mail’s troubles damage address data then this would damage many of the public and private services that people rely on and use every day. It could even create risks to national security. The government needs to be prepared to save our addresses.

The Royal Mail is in trouble

Founded in 1516 the Royal Mail was the UK government’s postal service. It was privatised in 2013, but is now struggling due to a combination of increasing competition and changing consumer needs.

This year it is expected to report financial losses of £350m-450m, while its staff are striking for a pay rise that addresses the current cost of living.

Its future is uncertain

The Royal Mail’s management is exploring options.

Newspapers have reported that there may be a breakup that separates the Royal Mail’s UK operations from its international division. The company has suggested it could reduce the number of days when it delivers letters from six to five. There are talks of job cuts.

An overseas investment firm, Vesa, has been gradually increasing its shareholding. There may be other bidders for all or part of the business.

Because of its importance the Royal Mail’s future is political

The Royal Mail holds the role of sole provider of the UK’s universal postal service: it is legally required to deliver letters 6 days a week, to everywhere in the UK, for the same price.  It is also a major employer, with about 160,000 staff.

As a result the Royal Mail’s future is regularly debated in the newspapers, and high on the political agenda.

But this debate is missing that the Royal Mail provides another vital service.

The Royal Mail also maintains postal addresses

The Royal Mail works with local authorities and national government bodies to maintain the UK’s official list of addresses: the list of places where we live and work. Every time a new office, house or flat is built a new entry is created.

Just like the universal postal service, the duty of maintaining the list of postal addresses, the Postcode Address File (PAF), is written into legislation and regulated by Ofcom

There are no alternatives for this service. There is one list of official postal addresses for the UK.

When the Royal Mail was privatised many people argued for the address list to be retained within the public sector. In 2014 Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said that the ”sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake.”

Since then this data has become even more important.

This list of addresses has become vital infrastructure for the UK

The UK’s list of addresses is not only useful for postal services. We use addresses in an ever-growing number of interactions with government and businesses.

If someone registers to vote online, gets car insurance, or simply orders a pizza, then the address they use is checked against a list of addresses to make sure that it exists and to help deliver the service. After all, who we can vote for, or how much our car insurance costs, depends on where we live.

If someone wants to register with a GP then they enter their address so that the NHS can suggest GPs that are near to them. This address is validated against the official list of addresses and used to send us news of appointments, test results, and prescriptions.

The UK’s list of addresses is not perfect, the way we maintain it could be improved to give people better services and increase economic growth, but it is vital infrastructure for the UK.

There are risks to address data that could harm people

Because of the Royal Mail’s troubles there are risks to address data.

Job cuts, or simply a lack of attention from management, could lead to lower quality data that takes longer to update. A tiny error in address data can affect people’s credit rating. This already happens to some people, but it could happen to many more.

If the Royal Mail is sold to a new buyer then they may increase the cost of address data to help them recover their investment, or try to limit how it can be used so that they can get a competitive advantage in other markets. Data is a competition issue.

An overseas buyer may create additional national security risks due to the importance of address data to society and the economy. The government has completed a national security assessment into Vesa’s stake. This concluded that no further action is currently needed but it is not clear whether this assessment considered the Royal Mail’s role in address data. The concerns around overseas ownership are unlikely to go away.

So, as well as looking after jobs and the universal postal service, the UK government and Ofcom need to be prepared to act to save the UK’s address data.

The UK government needs to be prepared to save the UK’s address data

This preparation needs to cover the risks to address data, how to spot them happening, how to understand their impact on government, businesses and citizens, and how to mitigate them.

Recent events like Brexit and the blockage of the Suez Canal have shown us that mitigating disruptions to physical supply chains is complicated. Invisible supply chains, like those for address data, are relatively novel and less well understood.

Most importantly, the government needs to decide how it might act if things go wrong. Does it need to be prepared to support the Royal Mail to continue the service? To assess whether a new buyer should take over the statutory duty? To rapidly move the postcode address file back into the public sector?

Because address data is vital infrastructure and the UK government needs to be prepared to save it.

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