Quality of life "barometer" sidesteps resource use

The Government has unveiled a list of 13 proposed headline indicators, dubbed a "quality of life barometer", intended to focus public debate on sustainable development. The indicators offer little new information - but the exercise has helped to identify areas such as resource consumption and countryside quality where there is currently no reliable yardstick of progress.

Last year, Environment Minister Michael Meacher expressed enthusiasm for the idea of developing six or seven headline indicators which he hoped would be reported on the six-o'clock news. The policy was reiterated last February in the Government's Opportunities for Change consultation paper on a new sustainable development strategy (ENDS Report 277, pp 38-39 ).

The work builds on the previous Government's set of 120 indicators, covering mainly environmental issues. A revised set of 150 indicators will be issued alongside the new sustainable development strategy in early 1999.

Efforts to pare the data down to just six or seven headline indicators have proved too ambitious. And of the 13 indicators outlined in the new consultation paper, 1 only seven are environmental.

The indicators are to be released on a rolling basis as data become available. But there will also be "some mechanism" for regularly reporting all the headline indicators together, as part of the reporting cycle for the sustainable development strategy.

Launching the proposals, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said the new indicators would act as a "barometer for the quality of life in Britain."

But how much interest the news media will take in the indicators remains a moot point. Mr Prescott's "barometer" idea was widely discussed on TV news and in the newspapers - but only a couple of the broadsheets felt it worth publishing charts showing the indicators themselves.

The initiative has been a success in bringing together several Government Departments, and no less than five Ministers turned up to launch it. This may explain why there are 13 proposed indicators - a figure which Mr Prescott noted "may be too many".

The six non-environmental indicators cover economic growth, employment, health, education, housing quality and "social investment". The latter means investment in public assets including railways, education, health, water and - perhaps ironically - new roads.

The seven environmental indicators - largely drawn from existing data sources - cover:

  • Climate change: The indicator measures emissions of the "Kyoto" basket of six greenhouse gases.

  • Air pollution: The average number of days per monitoring site in breach of national air quality standards.

  • Transport: Changes in road traffic, split between cars and other vehicles.

  • Water quality: The proportion of rivers classed as good or fair.

  • Wildlife: A population index for wild birds has been compiled, revealing a marked decline in farmland species.

  • Land use: The Government intends to report the proportion of new homes built on previously developed land - currently around 55% in England against a target of 60% by 2008.

  • Waste: This is by far the least accurate of the proposed indicators, but more reliable data should be available next year when the Environment Agency completes its waste survey.

    The package does not address two key issues which were flagged up in responses to the consultation - resource use and countryside quality - principally because there are no existing measures. The Government contends that resource use is partly reflected in the waste indicator and countryside quality in the indicators on land use, wildlife and road traffic.

    As a result of the exercise, the Government is considering commissioning new research on measuring resource use and countryside quality. In the case of resource consumption, some consultees proposed measuring the average land area - or "ecological footprint" - required to maintain a household. An alternative approach adopted by research institutes in Germany and the USA is to measure resource use per unit of economic activity.

    Friends of the Earth have advocated that resource use per capita should be tracked - an approach which has the advantage of bringing things down to the level of the individual as well as permitting international equity and global resources to be considered.

    Of the more abstract approaches, some researchers have attempted to measure the "total material requirement" of an economy, to gauge the tonnage of materials consumed in manufacturing, distributing and using products. They point out that reducing resource use will often reduce pressures on biodiversity and pollution loads.

    The Government is steering clear of the idea of creating an aggregated index of progress, as proposed by some consultees. It might be possible, for example, to produce such an index by weighting other indicators. There has also been academic research into an adjusted measure of economic growth to take account of factors including environmental quality, resource consumption, health and social issues.

    The Government says that these ideas "are not yet scientifically valid or technically robust and so cannot be used to monitor progress year on year in a reliable way." Too many subjective judgements would be involved. And an aggregated index would be relatively flat, the Government says, masking important trends of interest.

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