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.


Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.