“Postcode lottery” is a cliché, and a peculiarly British one. Why is it, for example, that the only references on Google to “zip code lottery” I can find are articles in the US referring to the UK? Surely Americans, with their far greater local control of public services, would be screaming about the phenomenon and demanding a massive centralisation of services? Yet strangely they don’t.
Can it be a coincidence that the UK is both obsessed with postcode lotteries and happens to be one of the most centralised developed countries in the world (if not the most – depending on how you measure. Malta is unquestionably more centralised but has a population the size of Kirklees or Devon)?
There is local variation in public services around the world; the difference is that in most other countries people are able to do something about it. It is no coincidence that a country like Denmark devolves healthcare down to the local level yet can provide a consistently higher level of care. The gap between aggrieved voter and accountable politician is much, much closer. What’s more, the fact that the grass seems to be greener next door proves to be an excellent incentive for local government to always be on the lookout for ensuring that services are as good as they can be: the price they pay for failure is getting booted out of office.
Sunder Katwala may not realise it, but he is in fact an advocate of postcode lotteries. The system he seeks to preserve could indeed be called a lottery because how you cast your vote has almost nothing to do with the level of health services you go on to receive.
Nonetheless, he is correct to point out that this is an argument that has not yet been won in the UK. Oddly for a country so seemingly unconcerned about the widening equality gap, the British public are fixated on the idea of a national health service providing an identical service from Lands End to John O’Groats (and beyond). This idea has been encouraged by the courtly dance between the media and a political class all to happy to indulge it. It is no coincidence that we are not just more centralised than ever, but we have spent the last 50 years doing so. We’ve come a long way from the reforming zeal of Joseph Chamberlain. Nonetheless, local variation of public services is a fact whether you have local control or not. It is simply dishonest to try fooling the public into thinking that somewhere out there is a magic formula that will enable Whitehall to impose a standard service across the land. The con has worked for half a century; it is now time to start treating the electorate as adults.
Grant Shapps, as a paid up member of a party which claims to be localist, ought to know better than to fan these flames. His report doesn’t appear to have any positive suggestions at all, merely pointing out that there is significant variation in IVF provision and that it is all that wicked Gordon Brown’s fault. Playing the postcode lottery card makes it harder for a future Tory government do actually do anything about it.
This suggests that the Tory commitment to localism is only skin deep. The fact that the Tories remain steadfastly opposed to giving local authorities the single most important tool for local control of public services – greater tax-raising powers – only encourages this view.
It is encumbant on people who like to bang on about postcode lotteries – whether they are on the left or the right – to say what they propose to do about them. The Liberal Democrats, as true localists, have an answer. Can Fabians and Conservatives say the same?