40th anniversary of the postcode: How it evolved to form part of our identities

As Royal Mail marks the postcode’s 40th anniversary, Rhodri Marsden looks at how the administrative irritant that gave Royal Mail a staggering boost to productivity

If you’re ever looking for a way to wind people up, just inform them that the neighbourhood in which they live isn’t quite as good as the neighbourhood just up the road. If they don’t respond with sufficient outrage, tell them again, but back it up with a few statistics.

This theory was proven yesterday as Royal Mail drew our attention to a study, undertaken with help from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which revealed the “most desirable” postcodes in the UK, based on data relating to employment, health, education, crime, affordability of housing and so on. Those of us languishing in BD4 or TN34 imagined the smug faces of those dwelling in the three postcodes deemed “best” – SP9 (Tidworth), GU46 (Yateley) and CA27 (St Bees) – and wondered what on earth made them so damned special.

“Look, TD12 (Coldstream) has the lowest crime rate,” we noted, enviously, while pondering the factors that might bestow BH18 (Broadstone) with the highest proportion of married couples. Having pitched customer against customer, community against community, Royal Mail then skulked off to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the postcode, the peg on which said study was hung.

Four decades ago we needed constant reminders to use the postcode, an administrative irritant that gave Royal Mail a staggering boost to productivity. Today, however, postcodes form part of our identities. These six or seven characters, establishing the location of our home down to a few hundred yards, are so easily stored, searched and analysed that they have come to define our access to services (both public and private), the provision of healthcare and education, our insurance premiums and the value of our homes.

And as Royal Mail continues to license its extremely useful Postcode Address File (PAF) to third parties, our postcode becomes more significant than even the borough in which we live. We also know that postcodes are the result of pretty arbitrary administrative decisions made in the 1960s, seemingly based on nothing more significant than the location of mail-sorting offices. So we rail against any misclassification that appears to negatively affect us.

Some of said resentment could be seen as snobbery – say, a wish to be upgraded to Greenwich (SE10) from Deptford (SE8) – but there are undeniable real-world effects. Wick, on the Scottish mainland, has a KW1 postcode. KW stands for Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, and consequently delivery charges to Wick can be excessive. “Postcode boundaries do not necessarily reflect geographical or administrative boundaries,” is the stock Royal Mail response when people complain of being in the “wrong” one of 121 main postcode areas. They only ever redraw them for “operational reasons”. Complaints are futile.

Of course, if postcodes didn’t exist we’d still denigrate those who live around us, whether it’s the stuck-up sods who live over the river, the gang that roams the other side of the main road, the hipsters in the high-rise or the errant children on the local estate. Postcodes merely allow us to channel that resentment more accurately.

If you fancy exercising your loathing in an even more granular way, check out the study released last week which ranks the UK’s 7,137 Middle Layer Super Output Areas (MSOAs) according to some kind of “quality of life” index. My street is 5100th.

Walk a few streets away and I’m magically transported 2,000 places up the list. On one level I’m outraged, but on another I know that it’s meaningless; quality of life often has more to do with unmeasurables such as a sense of community.

But for many, these coloured areas on a sociologist’s map are a trap, one where they’re less likely to get a university degree or access to decent healthcare. Royal Mail didn’t create the postcode lottery, but by releasing studies that encourage us versus them thinking, they’re helping to saddle their beloved postcodes with a burden that they were never intended to bear.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea