Cllr Jonathan Glanz represents West End Ward on Westminster City Council and is the Council’s Lead Member for Broadband and Connectivity
From Amazon, to Ocado, to Deliveroo, with the rise of the gig-economy and online ordering we are also witnessing a surge in the delivery economy. We have all been there, mid-election campaign as we knock on the door of an unsuspecting voter who enthusiastically opens with anticipation, only to be disappointed by the sight of a blue rosette rather than greasy burger and chips to cure their hangover. The difficult exchange that follows failing to establish the location of “Lower Top Floor Flat, 6B”.
So as the dust settles from a hotly fought series of local elections and as we review our own tactics and campaign plans for the lessons to learn, I would make a plea to see an end to the confusion that is our current chaotic arrangements for confirming addresses and effectively recognising buildings and the dwellings within them.
It may sound like the moans of a hardened campaigner, looking up at a series of buzzers on a front door that bear no correlation to the addresses on our canvass cards, but these regular frustrations for embattled campaigners are symbolic of the daily struggles for delivery drivers across the capital. Whilst these pains are perhaps most keenly-felt in London, it is not a problem in our city alone.
Who has not stood, rather bewildered, debating whether the carefully planned, customised and stuffed survey addressed to Mrs Jones at Flat 2A London Road should in fact be delivered through the letterbox of 2 London Road, or the Basement Flat, or the side door off the alley, or the infill house next door? There are many variations on the theme from Top Floor Flat versus Penthouse, Basement, Lower Ground and Garden Flats; That always assumes that you can find the building at all. Many buildings have no identification whatsoever in the form of a number or name. Even where numbers exist, the historic snobbism relating to people wanting to have a “better address” often mean that London addresses, in particular on side streets or down alleyways, can be at a very considerable and often not logical distance from the fashionable streets on which they claim to be.
Surely there must be a better way? Not only to improve the efficiency and accuracy of political campaigning, but to deliver a much-needed boost to productivity for the growing delivery economy. While there will always be exceptions to prove the rule, I can see a very strong case for requiring all buildings to display their street number and clearly identify themselves and the number of any flats or other dwellings within them including HMOs. There could still be plenty of scope for variation of colour, style, taste, etc to cope with Listed Buildings, Conservation Areas, and the individuality of taste, but without this fundamental identification we will all continue to struggle.
And there is a more serious issue at stake here. Behind the haphazard system which currently subsists lies a huge opportunity for fraud. We are not just talking about Electoral Fraud although a studio flat with 30 registered voters such as we saw in Tower Hamlets could be more easily identified, but a whole host of fraudulent activity ranging from obtaining Parking Permits, Residents’ Discounts, to exploiting the confusion created to obtain multiple Housing Benefit claims, Social Security entitlement, or addresses for Healthcare Registration etc.
It is not just economic and political activity where this measure could help. The Emergency Services rely on the accuracy of their data and use postcodes to despatch blue-light services. However, postcodes cover a number of properties, and crucial time spent in identifying individual addresses within those postcodes would be minimised if they had access to such a system.
With the advent of online voter registrations, the accuracy of the electoral register should improve, as addresses are no longer scribbled on postal registration forms processed in the annual canvass but aligned to the central database used by Royal Mail (although the “can’t find my address” function continues to allow for errors). But surely with extensive GPS, and ever-cleverer technology and AI we have moved sufficiently far to provide a unique identifier to each property which could take the form of a barcode or QR code, which would then have to marry up with the address. This, in turn, could be used to provide a unique number for Council Tax or UBR registration and, where relevant, registered at the Land Registry.
The unique number would then be incorporated into any Tenancy or other Rental Agreement, preventing multiple charging for Housing Benefit, as well as possibly be linked to other official documents. The chance of this being used as another means of introducing Identify Cards by the (clearly identified) back door is worth the risk given that the system would identify the property, not the occupier but merely serve as an effective means of checking aspects of entitlement that an occupier may have from information otherwise in the public domain. It would merely serve to do so more effectively both for the legitimate occupier and those providing services.
Such a system would allow more creative mapping and technological solutions to update address anomalies and remove errors, improving accuracy of deliveries and canvass returns alike. By removing much of the confusion which currently pervades the system, we can make a significant reduction to the extensive address-based frauds which have now overtaken robbery and street crime in terms of the economic cost to business.
Surely it is now time to embrace this technology and roll-out the biggest update to address identifiers since the universal adoption of Post Codes in the mid-1900s, providing some form of unique address and PIN for each and every property.