Incorporating Environmental Justice into Indices of Multiple Deprivation

This open access journal article from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health provides a nice in-depth look at the history and development of UK multiple deprivation measures as well as some of the IMD’s advantages, disadvantages and uses in targeting social spending in the UK. The full article is well worth a read but some key takeaways have been summarised below:

  • ‘Environmental justice’ refers to the inequality in environments experienced by different populations (distributive justice) as well as differential access to information and decision-making processes (procedural justice). Environmental justice research in the UK tended to be broader in scope than in the USA and focused on income and then general measures of deprivation while American studies tended to focus on race.
  • The ability to present the IMD in map form that can be linked to postcodes was noted as a key advantage due to the power of maps as a communication device “commonly understood and used by politicians and the general public.” The authors point out that mapping clearly helps in targeting resources, and can demonstrate area change over time to assess the impact of policy interventions. The spatial focus of the IMD was picked out as well-suited to informing planning policy at regional or local level.
  • In terms of disadvantages, the report notes that area measures are subject to the ‘ecological fallacy’ – being based on areas not individuals the IMD does not identify differences between groups living within LSOAs. Also as a large index drawn from many different sources representing different types of deprivation the IMD is very useful for an overview but detailed indicators and differences may be lost within the mass of data.
  • The authors refer to the IMD’s use in UK public policy, citing a study that suggested at one time 1% of government spending was allocated using the IMD, and note the use of IMD in large programmes like the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, Regional Development Authority budgets and the New Deal for Communities. They also highlight the success of IMD use in health research, for example in studying life expectancy differences or winter deaths in Scotland.
  • There are multiple barriers researchers might face in creating an index of multiple deprivation: a lack of whole-population data other than censuses (which soon become out of date); data which is not ‘open’ or publicly available and often requires measures to protect confidentiality; data that exists in formats that are not easily applied to GIS or databases; cases where data is not collected at consistent small unit area level formats or is tied to different spatial units; digital datasets for area boundaries may not exist, or if they do, can be restricted-access or overly expensive.
  • However these barriers are technical and data barriers which “can demonstrably be overcome if there is the political will to change and a recognition of the enormous benefits to providing comprehensive data to researchers, policy makers, politicians, and other users” (p.10).
  • The development of indices of multiple deprivation in the rest of Europe has been slow while developing countries like South Africa and Namibia have embraced them. However researchers have had some success replicating features of the UK model in Germany, and found relationships with type 2 diabetes at municipal and district levels as well as mortality at the regional level within Bavaria.  The produced German IMD (GIMD) was then used in a number of epidemiological studies as well as research on health services and environmental justice. It received attention from official health policy and was mentioned in expert advisory reports of the German Ministry of Health. Germany’s federal structure and different population sizes are potential limitations on the efficacy and future expansion of the GIMD but it is nevertheless planned to be updated and extended to cover more indicators and domains.

The report lists other area deprivation indices in Europe but notes that the indices are typically very out of date, rarely used and are often one-off versions:

Source: Fairburn, Maier and Braubach, ‘Incorporating Environmental Justice into Second Generation Indices of Multiple Deprivation: Lessons from the UK and Progress Internationally’, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 13:8 (2016), 750, p.6.

There is also a good overview of the UK’s different Indices of Multiple Deprivation and the differences between them:


Source: Fairburn, Maier and Braubach, ‘Incorporating Environmental Justice into Second Generation Indices of Multiple Deprivation: Lessons from the UK and Progress Internationally’, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 13:8 (2016), 750, p.4.


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