By Mark Wallace
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One of the most flawed phrases in modern politics is "postcode lottery". I'm unable to find evidence of its origins, and when first coined it may have had more subtlety, but now it simply means a rejection of any and all local differences in services.
It is used with a heavy emphasis on the "postcode" element. It emerges like a tired jingle whenever one town or street gets a different service than elsewhere – the implication being that the state should look, feel and act the same wherever you might go.
But if we are honest, we should accept that no two places are the same. The age, habits, diets, occupations, interests, incomes, racial make-up, accents and many other aspects of any given population are always a unique composition.
A one-size-fits-all state would be a poor answer to such glorious variety, as well as a deeply unappealling organisation to deal with.
It wouldn't matter if your town happened to be a retirement haven, and the one next door a popular home for young newlyweds – both would get the same number of care home beds and midwives, regardless. Any attempt to ask for what you needed, rather than what you were given, would be met with Little Britain's infuriating "Computer says no".
We should embrace variation by postcode, or even more locally than that. We should encourage the state to recognise and act in response to our individuality rather than have it dish out what it believes the average family, street or town needs. It is a happy fact of the human condition that the average person does not exist – why should government set out to serve a statistical freak rather than treat the people as we really are?
Instead, we should acknowledge that if the "postcode" element of the popular gripe is actually desirable, then it is the "lottery" that we should object to. Local variation is desirable – but getting it by chance rather than design is not.
Instead of having local service levels imposed on us, we should be able to design the services we feel our respective areas need most (and, crucially, vary our tax levels in the knowledge that most will be spent locally on those needs). That means the localist reforms seen so far are a step in the right direction. Police Commissioners, for example, were given a disastrous launch by the government and got a low election turnout as a result, but as soon as one succeeds in delivering drastic improvements in their force then people elsewhere will start paying a lot more attention to who is voted in.
To make good decisions, you need information. This is why the coalition's radical improvements in the amount of publicly available government data are to be welcomed. The latest is Longer Lives, launched today by Jeremy Hunt, a website exposing the number of premature deaths taking place in each local authority area.
But the information is only one half of the equation. NHS policy is localised but not democratised – I live in Lambeth, which comes 121st out of 150 local authorities on the list, but I can't sack the boards governing local healthcare provision. My neighbours and I can't force anyone to change how our money is spent to address this problem. The council does have public health powers, but I doubt this is an issue that can be solved through even more nannying from Lambeth town hall.
Local variation is a good thing, and data which helps us to identify what works and what doesn't is even better. Now the government must give us the power to act on that knowledge.