Postcode lottery? You ain’t seen nothing yet!

In his call to arms for the Big Society, Nat Wei harks back to Regency and Georgian Britain, when social reformers emerged to set up the cooperatives, friendly societies, schools and housing charities that provided welfare during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As the centralised welfare state which took over from these institutions declines, he argues, we will need a new generation of social reformers to fill the gap.

He’s almost certainly right. You don’t need to be a Big Society romantic to believe that, if a few of us don’t get out there and do more, things could get very bad. As Dave Briggs said earlier this month:

I’m not saying this funding-free environment is a good thing. But it is a thing, possibly the thing……..maybe it’s a change in mindset that’s required to get through the next few years, and make the most of the fact that the big society agenda – whatever its faults – has some serious backing in government.

In other words, it’s happening and we’ve got to deal with it.

Sadly, though, the few people with direct experience of localised social provision are now well into their eighties. Most of those who were cared for by the institutions set up by the nineteenth century social reformers are no longer with us. Hardly anyone remembers what life was like before the welfare state. However, having talked to people from that generation over the years, I’m struck by how their experiences differed from each other. Some would describe thriving communities with what seemed to be functioning welfare systems. The mayor would discreetly buy shoes for the children who couldn’t afford them, the local headmaster knew the police sergeant, so abused children and battered wives were identified and their husbands dealt with! Cottage hospitals, charities, friendly societies and the church held the whole thing together. Others, though, told of grinding poverty with little social provision, where people came close to starvation.

It really depended on where you were and, as always, who you knew. If you lived in an area with strong charities, a well-run hospital and good relationships between doctors, teachers, police officers, council officials and local churches, you were probably OK. If you didn’t, you weren’t. A key aim of Beveridge and other advocates of the welfare state was to eliminate the randomness of welfare provision.

The Big Society, though, will be very much dependent on who steps up in a particular area and, crucially, on the relationships between those people. Even if you get lots of capable and dynamic people delivering services, it could still all fall apart if they don’t get on.

We British like to think that centralisation is alien to us and that bureaucratic states are a bit of a continental thing. In truth, we have become very attached to centralised universal provision especially in health. Fury and accusations of scandal accompany the very suggestion of a postcode lottery.

But Lord Wei’s nineteenth century social reformers created postcode lotteries all over the country, simply because they couldn’t be everywhere at once. The care and services you got depended totally on where you happened to live. Passing responsibility for social provision to a new generation of social reformers will have the same effect. People might not like postcode lotteries but they will have to get used to them. If we go back to a Regency and Victorian model of social provision, that’s what we are going to get.

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4 Responses to Postcode lottery? You ain’t seen nothing yet!

  1. Pingback: Postcode lottery? You ain’t seen nothing yet! - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. I kinda agree with you.

    When you look at how the Empire was administered you see that the Victorians and Edwardians had a huge centralised state. For example, look at the communications involved – a vast fleet of privately-owned but state subsidised ships that took mail to the Empire (Royal Mail Steamers). If you were part of that “state” then you were cushioned – for example, look at the pensions that Empire administrators received from the lowest clerk upwards.

    What Cameron is attempting to do is to shrink to state back to pre-Empire days.

  3. Jez says:

    You spark a thought….as GPs (rightly) take on more and more services that hospitals would previously have provided, why not call the enhanced practices “cottage hospitals”? That sounds so much better than “polyclinics”. Nice and local.

  4. Dave P says:

    It’s a slightly rosy piece. Decentralisation of services doesn’t empower communities, it just dumps national burdens on them, which is the whole idea. Already better-off areas with fewer burdens pay less and get better provision, while poor areas pay far more without a hope in hell of making up for the social and health effects of poverty. “Decentralisation”‘s a vehicle for deepening social polarisation and buying off the more affluent who won’t have to subsidise an equal standard of provision elsewhere.

    There’s a reason these things were centralised in the first place: local resources weren’t sufficient to do the job. That’s still the case. Consider the Haringey child protection crisis: there’s nothing that special about Haringey; the scandal is that life-and-death decisions were dumped on a crappy local authority barely adequate to empty bins.

    The new wave of decentralisation will be even worse: forget elected councils, we’ll be left begging to a self-appointed board of the local “great and good” for that heart op or for a little money to live on if one of them made us redundant last week. Better have the right neighbours and know the right people; that’s the Tory vision: “Big Society” = “No such thing as society”.

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