The postcode lottery: how where you live affects car and home insurance, pensions and even healthcare
At his impressive Knightsbridge apartment, Iain Walker looks surprisingly relaxed when I tell him that his postcode has just left his pension £1,000 a year worse off.
Down the road near Croydon, Joy Carrier is relieved that she swapped postcodes, by moving home, and saved hundreds of pounds on her car insurance.
And more than 120 miles away, Ben Bydawell wonders how much longer his wife, Wendy, would have survived cancer if only their postcode had begun ‘GL’ instead of ‘HR’.
Classy postcode: But Iain Walker from Kensington, London loses £1,000 a year of his pension
These people have never met, but they have one thing in common. Almost every aspect of their lives is determined by the numbers and letters that come at the end of their address. And so is yours.
Welcome to the world of the postcode lottery, where everything about your street is sliced, diced and moulded into descriptive pigeon-holes into which you and your family are unceremoniously lumped.
And once you have been, almost everything, from the cost of car and home insurance to the level of your pension and even the cancer drugs you can have, is determined by your postcode and the people you live among.
Want a loan or mortgage? Well, maybe — but only if your neighbours haven’t defaulted on theirs.
How about contents insurance? Of course, but you might have to pay more for all the times your postcode has appeared in dodgy claims forms.
Want cheaper car insurance? Sure, just as soon as motorists stop crashing in the streets where you live.
Today, there are 1.7 million postcodes in the UK, covering 27 million postal addresses, and as databases on crime, affluence, lifestyle, population and longevity have grown, they have become the labels that identify the intensively-analysed groups of people who live in them.
Insurance and pensions companies, mortgage providers and marketing groups collate information they gather themselves — such as details of car crash claims or loan defaults — and add it to data from government sources such as the Office for National Statistics, the Department of Health and unemployment and crime statistics.
Even the unwanted junk mail you receive has been especially selected for you because of where you live.
They then take information from ‘geo-demographic’ databases such as Mosaic, which is owned by the credit company Experian. Mosaic classifies us all as one of 67 ‘lifestyle types’ according to our spending habits and the marketing trends in our area (you’ll see below the sweeping bracket it put me into).
Put this all together, then analyse it using complex equations and computer programmes, and you have a massive amount of detail about each postcode grouping — which usually incorporates only about 15 properties.
So, what does this mean in layman’s terms? Take a look at these stories — and my own experience — and see how your postcode could be affecting you . . .
NHS statistics and government data give an indication of how long people in your postcode are likely to live — using factors such as diet, wealth and unemployment levels.
Iain Walker, he of the classy Knightsbridge apartment and a 68-year-old pensions consultant, explains: ‘From that information, the pension companies decide how much they can afford to offer you as an annuity.
If they think you’ll die young, they’ll offer you a higher yearly payment than someone they think is going to outlive you.
Sad driver: Joy Carrier from Croydon paid £300 extra for her car insurance
‘Using postcodes might seem like quite a blunt instrument, but if you accept that people living in particular areas tend — on average — to be similar in many ways, then you can see why the pensions and insurance companies use them. They’re looking for an average — and that’s what they get over time.’
I go online and, using Iain’s name, look for an annuity with a £200,000 pot that would give him a fixed annual income for life.
I use his Knightsbridge postcode and then one in Calton, Glasgow, an area with the country’s lowest life-expectancy. According to annuities-online.com, an annuity with the Prudential would pay him £12,053 a year if he lived in Knightsbridge.
However, the Glasgow G40 1AU postcode would bring in £13,104 a year.
The insurance company’s underwriters have such confidence that Iain would die earlier in Glasgow they would be prepared to offer him more than £1,000 a year — or 9 per cent — more if he lived there.
Pension companies have been using postcodes for only four years and it will be several more before they know whether their informed guesswork has proved to be correct.
Legal & General was the first to introduce postcode-based payouts. Its director for annuities, Phil Naylor, tells me: ‘It is not about paying Peter to rob Paul.
Under postcode pricing, on average, people living in wealthier areas are receiving less income and people in poorer areas are receiving more.
‘This is not about ripping off those in wealthier areas, it just means providers are more accurately assessing their “longer” life expectancy. One could argue the previous methodology (when payouts were equal across the board) was, in fact, totally unfair to those living in poorer areas.’
Car insurance companies will tell you postcodes play only a small part in assessing your premiums. Your age, the type of vehicle, the size of the engine, how many points you have and your no-claims bonus are all more important. But are they?
Joy Carrier, a 67-year-old mother of three grown-up children, doesn’t think so. Three years ago, she decided to downsize from the family home and was careful to choose a ‘good’ postcode.
‘Everyone knows how busy Croydon is and the fact that there are some areas of higher crime nearby,’ she says. ‘I had a Croydon CRO postcode and, in downsizing, I wanted to stay near my family and friends.
But I also wanted a Sutton SM6 postcode, which I knew was considered better. I only had to move half a mile south to get one.
‘My car insurance with Direct Line, for my Toyota Yaris (with a named driver and no-claims bonus) is now £357 with my new SM6 postcode. The cost at my old Croydon postcode, however, was £622.’
Motorists in CRO postcodes shouldn’t be surprised if their next motor insurance bill is even higher, thanks to the riots that affected the area last month.
Your postcode doesn’t just hit your pocket, it can affect your health, too. For many years, patients have lamented NHS ‘postcode lotteries’ which seemed to determine levels of all sorts of care, from fertility treatment to neo-natal services, dental provision to cancer drug availability.
Last year, an NHS survey, called the Atlas of Variation, demonstrated that patients weren’t imagining this. It was true.
Among many other findings, the Atlas showed huge differences in cancer, stroke and diabetes care. From area to area, there were enormous disparities in how Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) prioritised their spending.
Tragic: Wendy Bydawell died after being denied a life-saving drug she might have received had she not lived in Herefordshire
Some spent more than ten times more than others on hip replacements, but more heartbreaking was the discrepancy that emerged in the spending per head on cancer patients — and the availability of cutting-edge drugs. Some PCTs were spending £20,000 a head on their cancer patients, while with others the figure was just half of that.
Sixty-year-old Ben Bydawell, a softly-spoken furniture-maker from Herefordshire, believes his wife, Wendy, who died at the age of 56 from a brain tumour just before Christmas last year, could have lived longer — if only she’d had a postcode from Gloucestershire, the county next door.
‘Her consultant oncologist wanted to prescribe her Avastin,’ he says. ‘But because it wasn’t fully approved yet by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), Worcestershire PCT turned down his request.
‘I am not saying the drug would have cured her, but all the evidence suggested that it would have prolonged her life, and although no one knows for how long, we thought that was the least we could have expected. Yet we knew that some people had been prescribed the drug in Gloucestershire and that was terribly frustrating.
‘Wendy was my wife for 18 years and I loved her. She was a teaching assistant at the local primary school and we couldn’t walk anywhere in our small town without children coming up and saying hello to her. Just to have her treated with what was available was all we wanted.
‘In the end, she felt that by withholding Avastin from her, the PCT was saying her life wasn’t worth extending.
‘I think that either everyone should be given access to the drugs that are available or no one should be. The way things stand at the moment, the system is grossly unfair.’
Since Wendy died, the Government has introduced the £200 million Cancer Drugs Fund to pay for treatments such as Avastin, but its distribution still appears patchy.
Mike Hobday, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, says: ‘Although a large number of cancer patients have received life-extending treatment because of the Cancer Drugs Fund in England, we know that there is still considerable variation in the way it is being administered between regions.’
I wondered how my own postcode affected me and so recruited the help of 48-year-old Adam Gray, an artist living in the postcode that rubs up against mine.
I used his postcode — in EC2A, the Shoreditch area of London — to compare the cost of products that I bought from mine, which is E1 in Whitechapel.
We both own fashionable, open-plan, loft-style apartments that are just 1.5 miles apart, but when I input all my details into comparison websites for insurance and pensions, the differences were staggering. Home contents insurance came in at £193 with Post Office insurance using his postcode, and £409 with mine.
It’s a lottery: The numbers at the end of your address can affect almost every aspect of your life
Admittedly, my area is slightly more downmarket than his, but I have lived here for ten years without any damage to my car or burglary to my home.
Using the Gocompare website, it would have cost me £475 to insure my car with Swiftcover with his postcode — while it was a thumping £950 using mine.
Incredibly, however, the one-and-a-half miles between us would have penalised Adam if he had tried to buy an annuity. With a £250,000 pension pot and an intention to retire in 2020, I would receive £16,965 a year, while Adam would get £16,429. Clearly, I am expected to die before him.
Finally, what did our postcodes say about our lifestyle type? Well, this was a bit hit and miss. According to the Experian Mosaic profile based on Adam’s postcode, his classification is ‘Liberal Opinions — Urban Cool’, which he rather liked.
‘Liberal Opinions contains young, professional people who have benefited from a university education,’ waxes Mosaic.
‘Interested in exploring the worlds of people different from themselves, this group often throw themselves into the type of professional job where there is no clear boundary between work and leisure.
‘For this reason, it is often more convenient as well as more attractive for them to live in accessible inner suburbs.’
‘I had no idea your postcode was so important — or that it could tell so much about you,’ says Adam. ‘I have to say I think that profile has me nailed.’
And me? Well, not so good. Mosaic describes my postcode as: ‘Upper Floor Living — Multicultural Towers housing people on limited incomes, renting small flats from local councils or housing associations. Typically these are young, single people or young adults sharing a flat.’
The results demonstrate that postcode pigeon-holing isn’t always accurate. I don’t live in a tower block, I don’t rent from a housing association or the council — and I don’t have to share to cover the rent, as I am a home owner.
If I decided to retire here, I’d be quids-in. Until then, I’d better expect to be hammered for everything else.
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