Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Power of the Postcode

The Telegraph reports:

There's no lottery about postcodes. It is a precise ... and revealing ... science, writes Jasper Gerard

It's in the DNA of the British to keep up appearances. Even the Queen patches her carpets.

Telltale code: your postcode can reflect your lifestyle
Meanwhile, the middle class kits itself out from Boden clearance sales and supplements the weekly shop in Waitrose with a crafty whizz round Lidl.

But postcodes, we now learn, strip away our pretence and lay bare just how smart we really are. An Englishman no longer gives away his life story by opening his mouth, but by opening an envelope marked with that telltale code.

How long you are put on hold is now determined by it. Whenever some call centre operative from Bangalore asks for your postcode, he will have "frighteningly accurate" information about your salary, credit rating, property value, hobbies, relationships, holidays, political affiliations, even what TV shows you watch, your interest in current affairs, what newspaper you read, which websites you check.

CCTV cameras may document where you are through the day, but now companies can instantly summon an image of how you live - thanks to your postcode.

And this will not be some generalised punt, such as that if you live in Gloucestershire you are probably gin and Jag, into wife-swapping and with a weakness for flashing the cash. It will be detailed, about you and your most immediate neighbours.

Your friends think you are swanky to strut around in Manolos, but you know they are hand-me-downs from your sister who found they gave her blisters. And guess what? Your new friend from Bangalore knows that, too - my dear, he can tell instantly that anyone down your street could barely afford Russell & Bromley.

Contrary to popular myth, there is no lottery about postcodes: the richer you are, the smarter your area and the more attractive you are to companies desperate to flog you stuff. So far from being a lottery, it is an increasingly precise science.

Professor Roger Burrows, who this week presented a paper on postcode profiling at the British Association Festival of Science in York, says: "In some call centres, a message will flash up 'wealthy customer, handle with care'." And the intelligence is freely available: "Everyone can access information about others in the country based on their postcode."

Employers and dates already scour Facebook for background, but you can edit that information. There is no such protection from other websites that publish what you - poor, naïve soul - might consider "private". I've just had a gander, and I'm reeling from the avalanche of detail cascading down after a few clicks.

Check out peeping toms will be in paradise. Everything you ever wanted to know about your neighbours and much more is there. Are they, it asks, "Sun readers or Guardianistas?" It's like curtain-twitching, just more scientific.

My Kentish village (TN8) is described in detail. I am, apparently a "type 3" - that is, a commuter who lives in a desirable shire village whose income is "very high" (open to debate, I fear). But I am also told my postcode's average wage, how much nearby houses have sold for - and even that three folk nearby claim the Jobseeker's Allowance. Those of us with jobs are, I learn, "highly astute" (don't laugh) senior managers and work-from-homers who shop online and are into fine art, opera, the National Trust and The Daily Telegraph. I learn that my neighbours are charitable, Christian, married (some for the second time), and are also getting on a bit. It doesn't tell me if they are swingers, but I suspect plenty of other websites will.

And then there is, which tempts me to snoop around the postcodes of famous people. The average price of a semi in David Cameron's West Kensington (W10), I discover, is a perky £2,943,752, and his neighbours mostly cycle to work - though it fails to tell me if their chauffeurs also drive behind. Charlotte Church's neighbours in Cardiff, by contrast, read mid-market tabloids, earn between £10,000 and £15,000, and really do shovel muck for a living - which might explain why the language of the "voice of an angel" borders on the agricultural.

Who you happen to live next door to really matters, and not merely because their Leylandii block your light: if one of them has a dodgy credit rating, this will limit your access to loans as financial-service companies calculate risk by the proportion of local households that have defaulted.

Barclaycard has stopped direct delivery to certain postcodes. A mail-order firm has cut fraud losses by 80 per cent through extra checks on orders from just 17 per cent of postcodes. It makes financial sense, but stigmatises people merely according to geography. Very precise geography, it must be said: companies will classify houses differently just yards apart.

Prof Burrows found a street in London's East End that contained five different categories, gradually changing from a smart, gentrified enclave right down to a grimy bit that wouldn't recognise Cath Kidston if it smacked it in its rather common chops.

Postcodes now do far more than help Postman Pat. They dramatically affect property values, with residents of a Birmingham development threatening to sue the builder after finding themselves in the "wrong" postcode; developers in London's Raynes Park (SW20) lobbied furiously to have the area rechristened "West Wimbledon" (SW19).

Just as the capital's telephone designations - 0207 for inner London, 0208 for outer - caused consternation among the many outed as "suburban", so the British have long been snobbish about the code at the end of their address. W1 (Mayfair) was always smart, while W2 meant, oh dear, you lived "north of the park" and, worse, now next door to the Blairs.

Windsor, rather than dropping bombs on Slough, simply requested the town be dropped from the Windsor postcode. An Old Etonian of my acquaintance was perturbed when he discovered the great country pile he had just bought carried the prefix "MK", for Milton Keynes - how non-U. A postcode has long damned not just an area but a way of life: if a Labour luvvy from Hampstead said something silly, he was ridiculed for being "so NW3".

But what has changed is the sheer detail that can be gleaned and how this will be used, determining your chances of gaining that platinum card or the right deal for that holiday to the Maldives.

Postcode data is not all bad: government resources, notably money for health, can be better targeted to where they are most needed, though inevitably this encourages Labour's habit of robbing the suburbs to give to the poorer inner cities. There's nothing you can do about it.

And nor is there any place to hide: ring a call centre - even from your mobile - and the person who answers will immediately ask for your postcode. You can refuse, of course; but then the company may refuse to do business.

Should you be suffering from "postcode cringe", though, stuck in an unfashionable area, don't book the removal van yet. Even the smartest postcodes - such as the Telegraph's SW1 - can be "contaminated" by, say, the number of bedsits around Victoria Station. Horton in Surrey and Grange Park in Northampton are in the highest household incomes bracket, areas not normally associated with Burlington Berties.

And items such as pet insurance might be discounted in unfashionable postcodes as vets will be cheaper. Oh, and live in a crummy area and you could receive a higher pension - because your area's so ghastly you will die quicker.

It's still so terribly complicated, being British. Shaw would recognise all of this. John Major announced "the classless society", but far from abolishing class, we have invented hundreds of new classes. We can go ex-directory; if only we could go ex-postcode.


If you live in Epsom, you're more likely to live in a semi-detached house, have a managerial job, and invest in ISAs. Your household income will be around £59,000pa - the country's highest average. You shop for food at Waitrose, Sainsbury's and M&S, and for clothes in Next or French Connection. You go to the gym, play golf and enjoy skiing breaks. As well eating out, you'll appreciate wine and the odd cigar.


If you live in Everton, chances are you're a single pensioner living in a high-rise block of flats. With an average household income of around £16,000pa, you're unlikely to have much to save. Unemployment is twice the national average and you don't own a car. Your inactive lifestyle is fuelled by a poor diet and nights in the pub, which contributes to the likelihood of long-term illness.