The methods and principles of allocating centrally provided health care resources to regions and areas are reviewed using the report of the Resource Allocation Working Party (RAWP) (Department of Health and Social Security, 1976) and the consultative document (Department of Health and Social Security, 1976a) as a basis. A range of practical problems arising from these papers (especially the report of the RAWP) is described and traced to the terms of reference. It is concluded that the RAWP misinterpreted aspects of social and administrative reality, and it failed to recognise clearly that the several principles on which it had to work conflicted with each other and demanded decisions of priority. The consequential errors led to (a) an injudicious imposition of 'objectivity' at all levels of allocation, (b) an unjustified insistence that the same method be used at each administrative level in an additive and transitive manner, (c) the exclusion of general practitioner services from their considerations, (d) a failure to delineate those decisions which are in fact political decisions, thus to concatenate them, inappropriately, with technical and professional issues. The main requirement in a revised system is for a mechanism which allocates different priorities to different principles at each appropriate administrative and distributive level, and adapts the working methods of each tier to meet separately defined objectives.