Quality of life index will test national happiness

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday proposed a "quality of life barometer" to measure 13 different every-day concerns of the population, from economic growth and jobs, to health, education and, in particular, the state of the environment.

The Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said that new "headline indicators", to be published annually, will complement the purely economic measurements of the UK's well-being that have been used in the past, and reflect such concerns as road traffic growth, housing, air and water quality and wildlife populations.

"We are used to judging the economy's performance on the basis of GDP, inflation and employment figures," Mr Prescott said, launching the initiative with four other ministers.

"I want these headline indicators over time to become just as useful and familiar, reported regularly on TV and radio and in the newspapers."

The quality of life barometer is the Government's way of indicating progress towards a principal aim of modern environment policy and sustainable development. Thirteen sustainable development indicators are being proposed for annual publication, although the Government freely admits more could have been included, and indeed, the previous Conservative government proposed an initial list of 122. But the Government believes that a more limited set of indicators will allow people to see "the overall picture of whether our development is sustainable".

Notable absenstees are what might be called "misery indicators", such as those for poverty, drug use or violent crime.

The 13 sectors are: Economic growth; social investment; employment; health; education and training; housing quality; climate change; air pollution; transport; water quality; wildlife; land use; waste.

They will show performance in the various sectors, such as, in health, the average expected years of healthy life; in housing, the numbers of homes judged unfit to inhabit; in education, the average educational qualifications of teenagers; and, in the wildlife sector, the rate of change of wild bird populations.

"We are committed to a new way of thinking, one which puts environmental, social and economic concerns alongside each other at the heart of decision- making," Mr Prescott said. "Sustainable development links the standard of living and the quality of life, not just here in Britain, but right across the world."

Mr Prescott's deputy, the Environment minister Michael Meacher, has been the driving force behind the initiative.

He said yesterday: "This is a measure not only of how the Government will be assessed - and I'm sure it will be - but of how we are performing and the way we need to go, to improve."

The previous Conservative government had a short and unhappy experiment with something similar when for two years, in 1991 and 1992, the then environment secretary Michael Heseltine published a detailed annual environmental report. But after it began to be used to point out where the Government was falling back, rather than making progress, Mr Heseltine's successor, Michael Howard, abandoned it.

Mr Prescott was reminded of this yesterday and asked to give a pledge that the Government would not take the spotlight off the new indicators if they started to become a political embarrassment. He replied: "They will be published." He added: "There's no point in saying, `we haven't done well on this, so we're not going to publish it'. People want to be able to see and measure change - and so do we."

Three more Government ministers joined Messrs Prescott and Meacher to give the quality of life barometer their enthusiastic backing yesterday - Charles Clarke, from the Department of Employment and Education, Tessa Jowell, from health, and Kim Howells from trade and industry. And it also received a warm welcome from the New Economics Foundation, the sustainable development research charity which first suggested such a basket of alternative indicators in a report 10 years ago. "This is a landmark in taking a more rounded approach to the quality of life in the UK," said the foundation's spokes-man, Sanjiv Lingayah.

But the welcome in some other quarters was more guarded. Ian Christie, of the left-wing think tank Demos, said that it would be very difficult for the public and professionals in these areas to work out how the indicators interacted with each other.

"My main disappointment is the Government has not experimented with using one of the main rivals to GDP, such as the index of sustainable economic welfare which was established around 10 years ago in the United States," he said. "This takes GDP and adds and subtracts a range of costed social and environmental factors, reflecting the way economic growth has certain costs. This indicates - even though GDP has been going up since 1950 - that since the late Seventies, there's been a decline in the quality of life. They move in different directions after 1978-79."

The idea should be to see a chain of consequences coming from a particular set of indicators, he said, but the danger was that the Government would be left with "a basket of interesting facts".

The Council for the Protection of Rural England complained the barometer con-tained no measure of either natural beauty or rural tranquillity. "The tranquillity and beauty of rural England are glaring omissions from the Government's welcome new indicators for measuring quality of life," said Tony Burton, the CPRE's assistant director.

The Chosen Indicators

Economic growth: The total output of the economy.

GDP: Gross domestic product. It is the Government's preferred economic indicator. GDP indicates higher living standards, but not necessarily for everybody, and it may mean a more polluted world.


investment: The indicator to be used is total investment in public assets, such as transport and hospitals. Such investment reached pounds 10bn in 1972, dipped to pounds 6bn by 1982 and was up to 14bn by 1992.

Employment: The indicator is people of working age who are in work. This reached a peak of 75 per cent in 1990, then fell to 70 per cent during the early-Nineties recession. By this year it has gone back up to 73 per cent.

Health: Expected years of healthy life - not the same thing as life expectancy - is the indicator here. A girl born today can expect to live to the age of 80, but only until the age of 62 as a fit and active person.

Education and training: The indicator is to be the proportion of people aged 19 with level two qualifications (five GCSEs at Grade C or above). This has been steadily improving - the current UK figure is 72 per cent.

Housing quality: Homes judged unfit to live, in is to be the indicator for this category. The proportion in England decreased from 8.8 per cent in 1986 to 7.2 per cent (about 1.5 million homes) in 1996.

Climate change: UK emissions of greenhouse gases, the industrial gases thought to be causing global warming, form the indicator. Emissions of carbon dioxide (the principal one) fell by 8 per cent from 1990 to 1997.

Air pollution: Days of air pollution is the indicator - the average number of days per recording site per year when air pollution was moderate or worse. At urban sites it fell from 62 days in 1993 to 40 in 1997.

Transport: The indicator will be traffic growth, which is moving upwards. Total motor vehicle traffic in 1997 was eight times that of 1950, and car traffic was 14 times higher.


Quality: The indicator is rivers of "good" or "fair" quality - meaning watercourses capable of supporting fish and providing drinking water. Currently nearly 95 per cent of UK river network.

Wildlife: Wild bird populations is to be the indicator. Some have dropped dramatically. Farmland birds such as the skylark, and woodland birds such as the song thrush, are down by more than half.

Land use: The Government's indicator is to be new homes built on "brownfield" sites (previously developed land). Its target is 60 per cent or better; the current figure in England is about 55 per cent.

Waste: The indicator comprisesthe amount of waste produced annually (about 145m tonnes), sent to tips (63 per cent) and recycled (31 per cent). Good news if the first two fall, the third rises.