The pains of the community charge or poll tax - that ultimate in self-inflicted wounds - are likely to linger on for a long while in certain quarters. The essence of the tax - and what originally commended it to Margaret Thatcher - was its extreme simplicity. To give it a radical overhaul now, or to replace it by some new property-based tax, can only be a move back in the direction of complexity. And that is bad news for the local authorities.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had already decided to integrate its various property databases - previously the jealously guarded possessions of its departments - before the advent of poll tax. Its impending introduction hastened the process, however. And at the same time the borough became the first local authority to adopt, certainly for poll tax purposes, what is probably the most advanced geodemographic systems package in Britain. Called PAC, for Pinpoint Address Code, this in effect superimposes the postcode on the latest information from Ordnance Survey. The result is a computerised map showing every household.
When council officials fed housing benefits and other files into the database they discovered that certain addresses had been omitted from the poll tax list altogether. A further financial benefit, however, was the system's ability to distinguish those who had paid the tax (like the Royal inhabitants of Kensington Palace) from those who had fallen into arrears. Where clusters of non-payers appeared on the map it was possible to plan the collector's route to best effect. Ones and twos were best contacted by post.