David Ireland, Chief Executive of the charity Empty Homes, has laid into the rules that prevent housing associations and others accessing the HCA's much-vaunted GIS mapping of empty homes describing the rules as "nonsensical bureaucratic rules that need changing" .
In an interesting blog post he identifies the restrictions on who can sign the Public Sector Mapping Agreement as the source of the problem. Only signatories to such agreements can access the Ordnance Survey data that the mapping, of course, relies on. The empty homes data is in the public domain already - it's just displaying it on a map which is a problem because access to the mapping data remains restricted, despite campaigns by the likes of the Guardian newspaper to "free our data".
Elsewhere, David's comments have been interpreted as an attack on the HCA (eg see 24dash.com news story), but the blog post makes it clear that the problem lies completely outside the HCA's control: no doubt the HCA is as frustrated as anyone else by the situation.
Local authorities do have the option to access to the data by signing an agreement - but not housing associations or charities. Whether the maps are really as useful as David Ireland claims is open to debate (much of the data is out-of-date, apart from anything else). But we certainly wish him and Empty Homes every success in gaining wider access to the maps. Empty Homes has a solid track record in campaigning, so there's some hope they'll succeed.
In a further interesting comment, David notes "you wouldn’t want details of empty houses being broadcast to everybody would you? So the line has to be drawn somewhere." This seems to indicate a change of position on the subject of disclosure as previously, Empty Homes has argued strongly in favour of releasing the addresses of empty homes held on council tax databases, most notably at the Information Tribunal that considered the Bexley Freedom of Informatoin case. Amongst practitioners, views on the desirability or otherwise of such disclosure seem to be split (though of course the case law now makes it clear that disclosure of addresses of empty homes owned by private individuals would be a breach of the Data Protection Act, so our opinions are of littel relevance day-to-day).