The postcode lottery test: which answer do you pick?

Hello again to a post I first wrote in 2009 about a topic that’s still very relevant: how should you react when policy outcomes vary around the country?

James Graham’s typically pugnacious post about postcode lotteries has prompted me to write down a question that’s been knocking around at the back of my mind:

When you read about a public service varying from area to area (aka postcode lotteries), do you think:

a. “This is a problem. We must introduce more measures to ensure that the service is driven by national standards”, or

b. “This is inevitable. We must introduce more measures to ensure that the service is driven by local decision making”?

The classic political response is (a): the service is worse in one place than in another, so we must make it better in the first place. In isolation, that’s an obvious – and commendable – response. But “must make it better” usually translates to “impose standards or funding rules from above so that they have to make the service the same” – and that then runs into the reality that circumstances, preferences and abilities vary around the country.

There is no inherent reason why the population of a small Scottish island should have the same health priorities as that of a densely populated London borough. There is no inherent reason why a swathe of rural Wales should have the same transport priorities as a chunk of urban Midlands.

The problem is not variation. The problem is when variation happens for the wrong reasons. And so the answer is not trying to impose uniformity, it’s about greater local decision making – so the variation is for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

It’s the lottery part of postcode lotteries which is the problem, not the postcode part.

2 responses to “The postcode lottery test: which answer do you pick?”

  1. Beautifully articulated, sir. It infuriates me to hear parties talking at one moment about decentralisation, reducing Whitehall bureaucracy, more power to local communities, etc – then later, to talk about postcode lotteries. You just can’t have it both ways.

  2. As I argued in a rather over-long comment on James’ post, I think the postcode part does matter. Postcodes are a symbol of the despoilation of local identity and attachment; local decision-making is no longer organised on the basis of units that are determined by what people associate themselves with, but rather on the basis of units that are “big enough”.

    Let’s recreate a network of local government that actually fits with where people see themselves as living rather than where some bureaucrat in Whitehall thinks they live.

    The sooner we reverse the essential verdict of 1972 – “to reconcile familiar geography which commands a certain amount of affection and loyalty, with the scale of operations on which modern planning methods can work effectively” and instead prioritise geography that commands affection and loyalty, and then find collaborative mechanisms where a larger scale of operations is thought necessary by the people, the sooner local government will regain the self-confidence of Birmingham under Chamberlain, of Hull building its own telephone network or of the magnificence of Manchester Town Hall.

    How can a local council that does not have confidence in the loyalty of its people ever challenge a UK government utterly certain that the people will never choose to stop being British?

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