Changing the way government identifies small areas of need and distributes funding in the UK and beyond
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of St Andrews
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Economics: Applied Economics
Studies In Human Society: Policy and Administration
Summary of the impact
Research into more accurate methods for measuring deprivation and `need'
at the neighbourhood, `small area level', has led to older methods being
abandoned. This has shaped government policy and practice, leading to the
UK, local and central government changing where, geographically, to focus
millions of pounds of spend. Our methods (Index of Multiple Deprivation
(IMD) and Health Poverty Index (HPI)) are now used extensively in public,
political and media discourses as the main reference point for any
discussion of the distribution of need across the UK. The IMD has now also
been adopted by the governments of South Africa, Nambia and Oman.
Prior to our work, small area measures of need had been facing mounting
criticism. These criticisms focused on both their methodological
shortcomings and their weak theoretical foundations. The reliance on the
UK census meant, for example, that the measures could only be produced
every 10 years. The census also had few direct measures of the dimensions
of society that were of interest, such as poverty, disability or premature
mortality. These indicators were typically combined in a fairly
atheoretical manner, with indicators often haphazardly brought together
with equal weightings. They were also calculated for geographical areas
that varied considerably in size and homogeneity. As the aim was often to
produce a measure that could be used to judge whether different areas
should receive extra funding, the comparison of areas of very different
size was highly problematic.
A programme of research at the Universities of Oxford and St Andrews,
demonstrated the accuracy of a different approach to the measurement of
small area need within appropriate geographies over the last 13 years. We
highlight the parts of the research that were carried out at St Andrews;
led by Dr C. Dibben (Reader, 2004 onwards), Prof. R. Flowerdew (Professor,
2000- 2012) and Dr Z. Feng (Senior Research Fellow, 2000 onwards). The
research has focused on the following main areas:
1. Using administrative data to measure small area `need' on a regular
It demonstrated for the first time in the UK that small area need could
be reliably and validly measured using administrative data. The St Andrews
work focused particularly on measuring the health of areas and groups for
the IMD and wide range of indicators for the HPI. Published in 2006, 2008
2. Methods for modeling small area `need' where no direct indicators
For some important characteristics of an area (e.g. rate of smoking -
HPI), groups (eg emergency admissions amongst ethnic minorities - HPI) or
the whole index (South African IMD) there are no direct small areas
indicators available. We therefore developed a synthetic modeling
technique to estimate these missing characteristics. Published in 2008,
3. How to produce small areas of similar population size and
We developed a method for creating small area geography for the Scottish
IMD through the use of spatial modelling and complex geoinformatic
algorithms to build homogenous areas with similarly sized populations.
Published in 2007 .
4. How to combine indicators, into an index, in a theoretically sound
Using different modelling techniques and eliciting public opinions
(revealed preference and discrete choice) we derived empirically validated
weightings, for the IMD, with which to combine small area measures. Prior
to this weights had been more arbitrarily assigned. Published in 2007 .
References to the research
These key research papers have been assessed both through peer review and
a large number of official government consultation processes, policy
forums, Statistical Agency reviews and critical discussion with interest
groups. These measures continue to be widely used and this is indicative
of the confidence the UK has in the methodology, i.e. that it is
internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1. Noble, M Wright, G Smith G and Dibben, C (2006) Measuring Multiple
Deprivation at the Small Area Level. Environment and Planning A 38
169-185. doi: 10.1068/a37168
2. Dibben, C, Watson, J., Smith, T., Cox, M., Manley, D., Perry, I.,
Rolfe, L., Barnes, H., Wilkinson, K., Linn, J., Liu, L., Sims, A., and
Hill, A. (2008) The Health Poverty Index. The NHS Information Centre.
Leeds, UK. http://www.hpi.org.uk/
Details of the impact
The research described above convinced UK government departments to
invest in multiple editions of the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and
the Health Poverty Index (HPI). These have had considerable impact:
 changing where the government (national and local) allocates funding
— leading to investment in areas of genuine need,
 being the main point of reference for parliamentary debates on the
geographical distribution of deprivation across the UK — impacting policy
 used extensively in the media in articles about geographical
inequalities across the UK — and therefore have influenced the public
understanding of patterns of need,
 as a way children are taught about patterns of `need',
 has been adopted by a number of countries across the world.
The IMD "have had a huge impact in terms of both reach and
significance. The impact has been so great that it is almost hard to
remember what life was like before they existed ..the SIMD [IMD in
Scotland] are certainly the standard which are extremely widely used by
a very wide range of users.... The benefits of this have been huge."
(Senior manager, National Records of Scotland) [S1].
(1) In resource allocation and policy decision making across the UK
"The Indices of Multiple Deprivation and its component indices are
probably the main mechanisms used in government at the moment to
distinguish between small areas for the purposes of analysing area
change, monitoring performance, setting targets and allocating funding."
"The Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) are used extensively to
analyse patterns of deprivation and inform the identification of areas
by local and central government that would benefit from special
initiatives or programmes and as a tool to determine eligibility for
specific funding." [S7]
About 1% of all government spending per year is allocated using
the IMD - ~£ 7 billion per year (author's calculation). The IMD
when first used led to considerable change in where resources were being
allocated across the UK, in particular it saw resources moving from some
parts of London to deprived parts of the North East and North West of
England (The Association of London Government calculated this change at
£265 million leaving London per year). The fact that the IMD is accepted
as an accurate measure of need, despite these large changes in where
funding was allocated, is strong evidence that it is redirecting resources
to areas of real need.
The IMD is also used extensively in local government [S2-S5]. For example
for Falkirk Council, it "is of major significance to us. We use
it to target resources, e.g. young people who would be eligible for
employment training programmes. We use it to identify areas of need. It
has on occasion been a factor in defining service delivery areas to
ensure that our areas of deprivation are not concentrated in one
particular service delivery area" (Senior manage Falkirk Council).
The Improvement and Development Agency argue that the HPI is a "web
based tool covering all local authority districts in England... Rather
than being a tool for monitoring inequalities and evaluating the
effectiveness of interventions, [it is] an essential summary at the
start of the decision-making process as part of assessing needs and
facilitating discussion within local partnerships on local priorities."
(2) In the way politicians discuss the geographical patterns of `need'
across the UK
- The IMD has consistently been central to debates at a national level —
a search of Hansard reveals 402 occasions in the last 10
years when it has been part of debates or parliamentary questions — this
level of reference has been consistent in the period since 2008.
- It is used in evidence for select committees, e.g. House of Commons
2011 Communities and Local Government Committee Regeneration, 2011 the
House of Lords Select Committee on HIV and AIDS in the United Kingdom.
James Wharton MP, for example, when questioning civil servants during the
Public Accounts Committee 2010 review of health inequalities uses
statistics based on the IMD to "find that 52% of the deprived areas are
not within the Spearheaded areas, so it seems not only that where we are
or have been targeting we have picked up some areas that are perhaps not
in as desperate a need as others, but then you are missing out a huge
chunk of deprived areas which could benefit from this." [S10]
The IMD is a tool for political accountability. David Walker (former
director of communications at the Audit Commission) writes that the
public should "laud a decision to go ahead with the publication of the
latest IMD figures — because they redirect
attention to the huge disparity of resources and social conditions
between England's local areas....Rich boroughs might,
privately, aspire to get rid of their poor residents, and housing
benefit changes may help achieve that. But the IMD shows councils
cannot, for the foreseeable future, escape their fate as instruments of
social justice." [S11].
(3) In the way journalists describe geographical patterns of `need'
across the UK
- A search of the BBC website reveals its use in 131
articles referencing it and on the Guardian website 61 times
in the last ten years.
- A search using Google reveals 1,000+ references to it on local
government reports, websites, newspaper articles etc. Of these 1,000,
about 500 were referenced in published books, reports.
For example an article in the Guardian, 14 November 2012 "Analysis
of the data by the Guardian reveals that in the 50 worst councils
affected by the government's decision to slash local authority budgets
from 2010, the average cut was £160 per head. This group included the
poorest populations in Britain — such as the most deprived council in
the country, Hackney, and struggling urban areas of the north such as
Liverpool, Rochdale and South Tyneside." [S12] is typical of the way
debate and discussion is framed using the IMD.
(4) As a way children are taught about patterns of `need' across the
The IMD is used in A level geography teaching. For example, the IMD is
part of the Edexcel AS geography syllabus. Edexcel, one of the five main
UK exam boards, uses it to enable children to explore the theme of places
needing to `rebrand themselves' Field Studies Council). Therefore
impacting how children understand the world around them.
(5) The IMD and Health Poverty Index methodology is now being adopted
by other countries around the world
- A number of versions have been produced for the Department for Social
Development in South Africa 2010 .
- The IMD methodology has also been adopted by Namibia and Oman.
Health Poverty Index methodology was adopted by the Irish
Public health Observatory in 2008.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Archived correspondence corroborate the extensive use of IMD in
[S1] Head of household estimates & projections branch National
Records of Scotland
[S2] Principal Information Analyst, Information Services Division (ISD),
NHS National Services Scotland
[S3] Senior Planning Analyst, Development and Regeneration Services,
Glasgow City Council.
[S4] Improvement and Organisational Development Project Officer, Argyll
and Bute Council.
[S5] Research and Information Leader, Falkirk Council
[S6] Lupton, Tunstall, Fenton and Harris (2011) Using and developing
place typologies for policy purposes, A report prepared for the Department
of Communities and Local Government London. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120919132719/http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/corporate/pdf/1832148.pdf
[S7] Atlas of Deprivation 2010, Office for National Statistics http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/regional-trends/atlas-of-deprivation--england/2010/atlas-of-deprivation-2010.html
[S8] Campbell F. Local public health intelligence. In: Campbell F,
Improvement and Development Agency, editors. The social determinants of
health and the role of local government. 2010.
[S9] House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee
Regeneration. Sixth Report of Session 2010—12 1st September the House of
Lords Select Committee on HIV and AIDS in the United Kingdom.
[S10] Public Accounts Committee, Tackling Inequalities in Life Expectancy
In Areas With The Worst Health And Deprivation 2010.
[S11] David Walker (2011) Mapping out needs, LocalGov.
[S12] Randeep Ramesh (2012) Council cuts 'targeted towards deprived