Next week, officials from the Department of Communications, Energy, and Natural Resources will do their best to ensure that their long-proposed postcode project avoids the most ignominious label in public service: “another Irish Water”.
That is the charge laid at Eircode following damning submissions from the freight industry at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications last week, where members were told the postcode system is useless for delivery companies and costly for small and medium businesses.
Eircode has been accused of failing to consult with relevant freight stakeholders and pushing ahead with the implementation of a costly system that offers no logistics benefits to the majority of businesses it was designed to serve.
The estimated €16m cost to the State aside, the Freight Transport Association of Ireland estimates that the introduction of Eircode will cost €80m to its industry, even if just 5% of small and medium businesses adopt Eircode. Its estimate is based on the assumption that any business that adopts the post code will need to pay up to 5,000 for an Eircode database on top of the cost of updating its own customer, accounts payable and accounts received databases to ensure it is compatible with the new system.
FTA Ireland is at pains to point out, however, that even if Eircode came at no cost, it would be of no use to its members because the code generated for each address is random, meaning that the code for adjacent properties bear no relation to each other. This lack of a nested or sequenced code structure ensures that the postcode offers no assistance to drivers looking to navigate the most efficient route when making their deliveries.
Furthermore, while it says it will support the development of Eircode, as early as 2005 An Post told the working group on post codes that it does not require the introduction of a public postcode system because it had developed its own GeoDirectory national address database.
The random nature of Eircodes has also come in for criticism from frontline emergency service staff. John Kidd, chairman of the Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association, said that because the codes are not sequential andbear no relation to neighbouring locations, errors by users could go unnoticed, as well as cause confusion and may be “catastrophic” in terms of sending services to the wrong location.
Mr Kidd compared Eircode to the sequential codes used in the North, where emergency staff “are used to postcodes that can be learned and are predictable so that they can find localities easily from memory”.
“Eircode does not offer that capability and will not be visible on street signs to help the public raise the alarm,” he said.
While the freight transport industry claims it was not consulted in regards to the drafting of the new postcodes, it seems other bodies that were consulted appear to have been ignored.
The Data Protection Commissioner, which first advised against the sort of one-to-one unique identifying code that Eircode will roll out, says it expects its concerns to be addressed before Eircode is introduced next year.
In 2006, then-commissioner Billy Hawkes warned that a code that identifies unique addresses instead of wider areas would pose data protection problems, a warning his office repeated in 2010.
The Data Protection Commissioner’s most recent Annual Report reflected on how Eircode will award individual codes to each address, contrary to this advice.
“This serious concern has since turned into a reality with the minister’s announcement on 8 October 2013 that Cabinet had agreed to the rollout of the unique seven digit character code to every letter box in the State by 2015,” the report read.
Last week’s committee meeting, in which several comparisons were made with the disastrous roll-out of Irish Water, is the latest setback in the State’s long quest to introduce postcodes.
First proposed in 2005 by then-communications minister Noel Dempsey, the government announced that postcodes would be in place by 2008.
“A postcode is a vital piece of infrastructure for a modern developed economy,” Mr Dempsey said at the time. “Without an effective postcode in Ireland, there is a real danger that not only postal operators, but also consumers, business and public services will be at a disadvantage compared to our EU partners. This Fianna Fáil led Government is committed to redressing this situation.”
This process was postponed by his successor Eamon Ryan in June 2007, who subsequently resurrected the project in September 2009. Mr Ryan said the system would be in place by the end of 2011, but further delays stalled the awarding of the Postcodes Management Licence Holder until January 2014, when the 10-year contract went to a consortium known as Capita Ireland.
Meanwhile, as the department has stumbled along for years trying to introduce a national postcode system, companies such as Loc8 Code, and GO Code spotted an opportunity and introduced their own postcodes for Ireland.
Cork-based company Loc8 Code, which uses sequential coding to identify locations, was blocked from bidding for the Eircode licence because its annual turnover was less than €40m. It complained about the preclusion to the European Commission, who found in favour of Gary Delaney, director of Loc8 Code.
The Commission found that the tendering process should have made allowances for smaller firms and instructed the State to “avoid similar errors in future”. The Commission, however, did not instruct the State to rerun the tendering process, ruling that it “could not establish any violation of EU public procurement law that would justify the opening of an infringement procedure”.
Months from its launch and nearly a full decade since it was first proposed, Eircode is already shrouded in controversy before a single post code has been issued.
“If you go onto the internet now and try to buy something you’ve got this embarrassing situation, you’ve got to put in your postcode and we don’t have one,” Mr Ryan said when announcing the Government’s latest attempt to introduce postcodes in 2009.
Five years and three communications ministers on from those comments and the State is now facing the embarrassing situation of spending millions on a postcode system that is going nowhere.