Territorial indicators of need, describing variations in the characteristics of areas ranging from wards to standard regions of the United Kingdom, represent a mainstream application of social indicators in this country. The development of these indicators has, for the most part, been based on an intellectual tradition which has paid little attention to theoretical argument.
In Part I of this article, a typology of existing need indicators is developed. By analysis of some of the best-known and most sophisticated examples, it is illustrated how this lack of theory has severely limited their usefulness in policy practice, particularly with regard to resource allocation, where they are potentially very important. A predominant symptom of the problem encountered with empirically based need indicators is the difficulty of establishing criteria for testing their validity.
For the ‘meaning’ of a need indicator to be clear, the indicator must be theoretically based. More specifically, it should be rooted in theoretical conclusions about the policy of welfare interventions. In Part II of the article, the theory of the need judgement as a cost-benefit decision is used to provide a basis for a need indicator. This method is then explicated with regard to social services provision for the elderly, so as to provide an indicator which is in fact a standard level of expenditure for social services departments in England and Wales.