Digital maps fight local tax fraud
The appearance of a "missing office block" in Leeds is among near-magical successes claimed for a new technique using digital mapping to highlight areas of council tax and business rates non-payment.
The technique could net councils millions of pounds a year, with no additional licences needed for using the technology under the existing Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA), Ordnance Survey said this month.
The National Fraud Authority's Annual Fraud Indicator for 2012 states that council tax fraud costs local authorities £131 million a year, an increase of 32% from 2011, working out at an average of £346,000 per council. The new system matches council tax and business rates records with household and business addresses. Areas of concern are highlighted on a map showing where no council tax or business rates are being paid.
The approach has been used by Huntingdonshire district council to uncover more than 750 council tax and 1,200 non-domestic rate mismatches, leading to the raising of an additional £180,000 of revenue, Ordnance Survey says. A further £92,000 has been recovered by Leeds City council from 58 newly discovered council tax and NDR assessments, some backdated for five years or more, including a "missing office building" which now pays £11,000 a year. Barnsley and Chorley councils have secured £27,000 and £16,000 of missing revenue respectively.
Ian Carter, strategic manager for Local Government at Ordnance Survey, said there could be legitimate reasons for non-payment such as a closed-down shop or empty business unit, "but perhaps a new shop or business has started up there, and not registered. So it highlights potential areas of concern and gives local authorities the opportunity to go and have a closer look on the ground, or check against the electoral register to see if people are living in the property."
When Ordnance Survey started looking into the use of digital mapping to combat fraud it was a steep learning curve, since the agency's traditional points of contact with councils were departments like highways maintenance and planning, Carter said. "We found take-up in revs and bens of our data is very slight - they have been licensed to use it for many years, but are not using it.
"Some of the authorities we've dealt with have their council tax records in a database built a long time ago, and updated piecemeal over the years. They might have access to fantastic addressing data elsewhere in the organisation, but the council tax guys are not patched in."
The results of using graphical formats to match data can be powerful, he said, and much easier than trying to match up spreadsheets or databases in other ways. It makes it easier to spot anomalies or clusters in the data that could signal fraud, as previous work the agency has carried out with insurance companies had shown.
"We uncovered one insurance fraud where people were claiming for whiplash on a bus crash where if you looked at where they all lived, they had no reason to be on that particular bus. When we raised the issue, all the claims disappeared - it turned out one of the people had caused the crash itself and then all the others had filed claims."
Similar patterns might emerge from examinations of claims for incidents like trip and slip accidents from poor gritting of roads or potholes, Carter said.
The Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA) came into effect in April 2011 and allows public sector bodies of all sizes in England and Wales to access Ordnance Survey digital mapping products. The One Scotland Mapping Agreement (OSMA) is a similar agreement covering Scotland. Data comes from Ordnance Survey and GeoPlace, a partnership with the Local Government Association that runs the National Address Gazetteer Database and the National Street Gazetteer for England and Wales.
Public Sector Mapping Agreement www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/PSMA