Wednesday 22 January 2014

How big is big enough?

In its editorial reaction to the report of the Williams Commission, yesterday’s Western Mail told us sternly that “post code lotteries are intolerable within a country of only three million”.  It’s one of those things that “everybody knows” to be true, but it begs two questions.
The first is this: what is the difference between a ‘post code lottery’ on the one hand and differing service levels based on local democratic choice on the other?  The answer, in essence, is that there is no difference; it all depends on perspective.  Centralists instinctively demand complete standardisation and conformity whereas decentralists accept that differing levels and quality of service are an inevitable concomitant – from those two viewpoints they merely describe the same phenomenon in different words.
The second question is this: if three million is too small to allow differing service levels, how many is enough?  It is implicit in any statement saying that ‘n’ is too small that there is a larger number which is not too small; in this case, what the paper calls ‘post code lotteries’ are apparently acceptable if only the population is large enough.  Why?
Hidden behind this is the way in which supporters of devolution – whom I had long thought to be instinctive decentralists – turn out to be centralists in practice in a Welsh context.  Strangely, I’ve heard some argue that they are in favour both of rigid central standards and powerful local government.  I can only conclude that they’re either confused or dishonest, because, for any given service, we really can’t have both.
Somehow, since the advent of devolution from London to Cardiff, an idea seems to have caught on amongst the politicians and media that there is no need or justification for any differences within Wales, whereas differences between Wales and England are perfectly acceptable.  It’s a valid vision for Wales, but it isn’t the one which many espoused before the Assembly was established.  And it isn’t one which ever drove me.

1 comment:

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

Spot on, John. I cringe whenever I hear complaints about people suffering due to "postcode lotteries". As far as I know, people's postcodes aren't put into a tombola, to be drawn out at random; the winning postcode gets the desired public service!

No, local administrations make decisions about services based on local needs and resources. Simples. "Postcode" is used as a cipher for address: a code which helps us work out where you live.

But by abstracting the places where people live to "postcodes" and democratic decisions to "lotteries", campaigners somehow make a case for unfair treatment. It's not the postcode, stupid. It's the decisions made by the people charged to make them for the place where you live based on YOUR local needs and resources.

I choose to live in a rural area. If the emergency response paramedic and ambulance can't get to me within 8 minutes, it isn't because of a "postcode lottery", it's because the Wales Ambulance Trust can't afford to place fully-staffed 24/7 ambulance stations (with surplus capacity for peak periods of demand) within 8 minutes of the entire population. Same goes for schools and hospitals and libraries, and yes, if the pot is too small to fulfill every demand, same goes for what medicines I can expect if I'm sick, or how long I have to wait to see a clinician.

So, there's no lottery (a game of chance), and there's certainly no link to a postcode.