The ghost of the postcode lottery


For health read all public services

Localism is probably the most debated concept within the new Government’s lexicon; if only because it is superficially easier to understand than the ‘Big Society’.

In effect the debate about localism is part of a very old debate about what is the most appropriate level of Government for decisions to be made.

At one end of the spectrum are the communists who would hold that all decisions that could affect the people should be made centrally. This (theoretically) ensures that all decisions made are done so in the best interests of all the people and that (ill-defined) fairness extends throughout the land. At the other end of the spectrum is a rampant form of libertarianism or anarchism where every man is free to act in their own self interest at all times.

Squaring the circle of exactly where this balance should fall has been a challenge for thinkers down the ages. Most of the time the solution is simply an unspoken compromise.

However, the European Union (beloved of formalising it’s rules has formally adopted the concept of subsidiarity; which in turn has been borrowed from Catholic Social Teaching.

To quote Wikipedia, subsidiarity is:

Is an organising principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.

But subsidiarity does not necessarily solve all our problems, especially in a country as small and centralised as the UK.

During the 1990s, (and here I might be victim of memory loss) the expression ‘postcode lottery’ became a frequent stick with which to beat the Government of the day. In effect the postcode lottery was negative shorthand for localism; i.e. you get different public services depending on where in the country you are living.

Institutions such as NICE (the National Institute for Clinical Excellence) and especially local government ring-fences were reactions to this perceived injustice as central government ensured that, as far as possible, all its citizens received an equal level of public service, no matter where they lived.

This was not particularly local and those in local government moaned about it at length but it was, to a certain extent ‘fair’.

This has now changed; many ring fences have been removed, local authority control of schools and Primary Care Trust (PCT) management of health care is being phased out in favour of more local control.

Which leaves the question: if the Government are keen that we are to get more ‘local’ does this necessarily mean that we will also end up being less ‘fair’. The Government are gambling that this won’t be the case AND that the new local services will benefit from local control and therefore greater efficiency and innovation. As a Local Government worker we’re committed to fairness; the localism agenda therefore provides a double challenge. As always, we say: bring it on.

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5 Comments on “The ghost of the postcode lottery”

  1. Mark Stanley Says:

    It is a tricky one isn’t it. Localism is great for everyone where the service is above average, and rubbish for everyone where the service is below average. I guess if the UK average ends up higher than the current UK average then Localism will claim victory.

    Left alone, and in an ideal market, the above average areas would thrive with more people and business moving in – therefore forcing the below average local authority to respond positively or risk their area slipping into decline.

    But we don’t live in an ideal market and people and business can’t easily relocate, so we end up stuck in a good/bad service area whether we like it or not. The only thing we can do is protest and elect a different council next time.

    If central government is at all political in the way it distributes funds to LAs then potentially they could financially choke opposition councils into providing a below average service, in the hope they would win more LAs in the next local election.

    But I’m sure they don’t think like that.


  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Window Man and FoI Man, WeLoveLocalGov. WeLoveLocalGov said: Does being local mean we're less fair? http://bit.ly/hHMzyb [...]

  3. jgh Says:

    As demonstrated by the attacks on “postcode lotteries”, The People don’t want local decision making. The People want universal uniform services everywhere. How !DARE! the council next door have free music lessons, I want free music lessons! Local decision making automatically creates postcode lotteries. The only solution is the complete and utter abolition of local government. Once everything is run from Whitehall, utopia will descend.


  4. [...] to control local government. As mentioned we would usually say the same (one of my colleagues already has) and would advocate the removal of these ring [...]


  5. [...] only ever work when people accept that some areas will be different to others; seems a little obvious to us, but not to others perhaps.  Of course it always helps to have a good benchmark to measure [...]


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