The postal system isn’t working for renters. So why not learn from email?

A postbox! Well I never. Image: Getty.

More people than ever are renting. The number of rented houses has more than doubled over the last twenty years, and someone under the age of 35 is more likely to be renting than own their home.

Like almost everyone my age, I have spent the first 10 years of my adult life living in rented homes. But it isn’t just young people that are changing how they live: the number of 35- to 64-year-olds renting has more than tripled since 1996.

People who are privately renting usually stay in the same home for less than four years and tend to move into another rented property. Those who own their homes live in them on average 4.5 times longer. In other words, more people renting means more people moving house than ever before.

Moving house is notoriously difficult. Packing a whole life up into boxes and moving them somewhere new is hard enough, but it also involves contacting friends, relatives and companies to update your address.

When I moved house earlier this year, I made a list of twenty companies and other people I needed to tell, including employers, pension companies, the doctor, the dentist and banks. On top of this, there’s every company that has remembered my delivery address. Even with this diligence, I’m still finding places I’d forgotten.

The Royal Mail warns that post delivered after you’ve moved out of a house can put you at risk of identity theft. They advise people to use mail-forwarding, but forwarding mail is expensive and only lasts for up to a year. After that, you still have to update everyone with the new address, something many people fail to do.

I’ve gotten to know the previous occupants of every address I’ve ever lived in by the envelopes of their mail, from their stock portfolios and DVLA warnings to their Christmas cards. With many people moving frequently and failing to update their addresses, rented homes in the UK are being filled with other people’s post.

It is illegal for anyone else to open mail that is not addressed to them, of course. The Royal Mail recommends returning mis-delivered mail to the sender by reposting it after crossing through the address and writing, “Not known at this address”. If there’s no return address on the envelope it will be sent to the National Returns Centre, which will aim to locate the address from the contents of the envelope.

To reduce the number of misdelivered letters left behind next time you move house, you can update your contact preferences to avoid post where possible. This is also more environmentally friendly, as a single letter can produce 10-30g of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, many companies don’t offer this option and, even when individuals can choose to reduce the amount of mail they receive, some post is inevitable.

Unlike addresses, other contact details don’t change very often: it’s possible to keep the same phone number when you move within an area or change mobile network provider, for example. So why shouldn’t addresses work in the same way? It should be possible to address an envelope to a person – or a unique identifier for a person – rather than a location, so that it’s only the postal service that needs to be told the new address when you move house.

Email addresses and most online profiles use a single, short identifier to uniquely identify a person, rather than an IP address which is the online equivalent of a physical location. Until recently, people’s postal addresses didn’t change very often, but people’s online addresses have always frequently changed as they swap devices and networks. This made it necessary to create an easy way to redirect online messages and similar technology can make redirecting post quick and easy.

Mail is already processed by computers: addresses are read automatically then printed as computer-readable dots onto the envelope. Converting from a unique identifier to the location to deliver the letter would just be an extension of this process.

Unfortunately, this kind of drastic change has not been tried anywhere in the offline world and is unlikely to happen here anytime soon. Until the postal service modernises to work for the fifth of households in the UK that are privately rented, we’ll be stuck living in houses filled with other people’s mail – and unsure if mail delivered to our previous addresses is leaking our identity.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).