News and Comment

Postcode lotteries revisted

Monday 20 June 2011


By Rob Francis, OPM Fellow and Hywel Lloyd,  OPM Associate

The Coalition’s Localism and Decentralisation Bill will encourage local groups to increase their role in running local public services. If this results in greater differences in the services people can expect to get in different places, will citizens be rejoicing that local people are finding local solutions, or will they be cursing the unfairness of new ‘postcode lotteries’?

In 2007, OPM produced a report titled ‘Local solutions or postcode lotteries – the acceptability of difference in public services’. Reviewing existing research on the topic and adding some new, qualitative work with citizens and public service managers, this study considered what people felt about local variations in the services available to them, and what informed their view of whether those differences were either justified or an ugly manifestation of the ‘postcode lottery’.

Through presenting research participants with some local scenarios, it was clear that their initial reactions – that everyone should ‘get the same’ regardless of where they lived – could shift. For instance, it was felt that difference could be acceptable provided there was a ‘basic standard’ that everyone could expect, but which local decision-makers could choose to top-up based on priorities and need. It was also felt that differences might be acceptable in relation to some services, but not others.

This tallied with work by the Lyons Review at the time, which found that most people thought refuse collection, leisure services and planning controls should be determined by local government, whilst education, policing and above all the NHS should be determined by central government. By implication, differences might more acceptably emerge between areas in terms of the former, but not the latter. When it came to other aspects of public spending, including roads and social services, consensus was less clear.

In the next few years, as local organisations are encouraged to get more involved with delivering services in their areas, citizens may find themselves pushed beyond the comfort zone of local decisions (and therefore local variations) only applying to things like parks and planning applications.

Will people stomach the idea that the type of care older people can access, for instance, and the way it is delivered, might be (quite) different depending on where they live?  Our 2007 study suggested that people are more sympathetic to the difficult choices that have to be made by local leaders, and the different priorities that may result, if they are involved in the thinking process and critically, if they can see the reasons for the differences that arise.

That cry of ‘postcode lottery’ is invoked less often in the press today than it was four or five years ago. But it seems likely that people will still expect there to be good reasons for the place-based differences they uncover. When those differences appear random or ill-considered, the argument that ‘it’s because decisions were made locally’ will be of little comfort to people who feel they are losing out, and that sense that they are caught up in a lottery will seem all the more justified.

Understanding the rationale for place-based differences that result from new, locally-devised models of provision will be crucial if individuals and communities are to accept them.

If you would like to explore some if these issues in person, you will find Hywel on the OPM stall at the Local Government Conference.