1. Economics
December 18, 2019updated 04 Aug 2023 8:45am

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

By Kim Barrett

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.

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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.

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