Royal Mail must end this stigma of having the ‘wrong’ postcode – David Behrens

There’s an old saying that the key to success in business or politics is in choosing which battles to fight, and doing so for the right reasons.

Postcodes are a quirk of sorting office history

It’s no good, for instance, campaigning against a new housing development because it will block the view from your window; no-one outside your street will give a toss. But if you can switch the argument to the impact on drainage, transport or the environment, your case grows suddenly more compelling.

The residents of Thornbury, a suburb that sits comfortably half-way between Leeds and Bradford, obviously understood this when they went to their MP to ask for their postcodes to be changed. It was confusing, they said, to pay their council tax to Leeds but to be arbitrarily lumped in with Bradford on the say-so of Royal Mail. The issue, they insisted, was a medical one; they were constantly being referred to the wrong health authority and they had no idea which hospital to go to in an emergency.

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Postcodes are a quirk of sorting office history

Those are sound reasons – but not the main one. The fact of the matter is that some postcodes are just better than others, and if the campaigners didn’t use the word ‘stigmatised’ they must have thought it.

You can ascribe this to snobbery if you like, but it doesn’t make it less true.

The proof is to be found in Ilkley, where the situation exists in reverse; it’s part of the Bradford district but it has a Leeds postcode. The same concerns about hospitals and doctors apply, yet I lived around there for 35 years and I never once heard anyone suggest it should be changed. Indeed, an LS29 address remains something of a status symbol, and there isn’t an estate agent in Yorkshire who would argue otherwise.

Even the Thornbury campaigners acknowledge that it isn’t only hospital admissions which make them want to migrate to Leeds – they speak also of higher house prices and lower insurance rates. That’s a polite way of pointing out that Bradford is a notorious hotspot for uninsured driving, where you’re twice as likely as the national average to run into someone without a policy.

But the BD postcode has an absurdly large footprint, and rogue motorists are a feature of only part of it. For reasons that can be traced back to the way the post office organised itself in the days of the pony express, it stretches all the way to Settle and Giggleswick in the Dales, which were once part of the same West Riding but are as different from present-day Bradford as a spring lamb and a stolen Lamborghini. No wonder people are tempted to write off the postal system as an anachronism.

It isn’t the only quirk of geography, either. Many villages south of the Humber, including those that fall well within rural Lincolnshire, retain DN postcodes which make them seem like part of Doncaster, more than 60 miles away. Even stranger, their “post town” is Goole, which is not much closer.

It would fall to Royal Mail, not a local council, to change any of this — but the institution is curiously averse to doing any such thing. Betraying its civil service roots, which hold that doing nothing is always the best option, it has let it be known to the Thornbury campaigners that it has no intention of changing postcodes for “non-operational reasons”, because doing so would be “illogical”. They don’t say to whom it would defy logic, or why.

We should expect no better of this most untransparent public service. It’s an organisation that lost its monopoly on delivering things to your home years ago but still acts as it did in the days of the telegram. “Coming to you by coach next Thursday, stop. Send money, stop” were the WhatsApp messages of their day, except that they contained words, not drawings, and they were gummed on strips of buff paper. Today’s Royal Mail – by saddling people with addresses they don’t want, which don’t reflect their neighbourhoods and which exist purely so that the sorting office can lose your letters more efficiently – is perpetuating another anachronism.

It’s not their fault that some areas are more desirable than others, though, and that is a piece of levelling-up that remains too ambitious to be on the political radar. It’s not one of those battles anyone is prepared to fight.

But that being the case, it behoves Royal Mail to demonstrate some accountability to its customers if it’s the last thing it does. And the way it’s going, it just may be.

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