Measuring well-being and sustainable development: Sustainable Development Indicators - Environmental Audit Committee Contents


The development of measures of sustainable development for the UK is currently progressing on two fronts: a 'Measuring National Well-being' initiative, set up by the Prime Minister in 2010 and being run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and a Defra-managed revision to the Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) which were published for consultation in July 2012. In a further inquiry, we intend to examine the ongoing ONS work on Measuring National Well-being. In this report we have focused on the linkages between the two initiatives and the detail of the proposed new SDIs.

There is some overlap between the two indicator frameworks. The distinction between the ONS focus on 'current' well-being and the SDIs on 'inter-generational' well-being is likely to be unclear for the public and possibly also for policy-makers, and the separate development of the two frameworks could obscure a coherent and full view of well-being. The ONS and Defra should consider how a single framework could be produced once the UN Statistical Commission's work on well-being and the post-Rio draft Sustainable Development Goals take shape.

The parallel development of the National Well-being measures has allowed Defra to propose dropping some of the current SDIs. Although their proposals overall have received a generally positive response, they need to more fully address inequalities and their lack of targets:

Defra should reconsider its proposal to drop the 'environmental equality' SDI, and review each of the other proposed SDIs to see how they might measure the range of values for how they affect people's lives, not just the average, to provide a basis for policy-making to narrow inequalities.

The intended use of traffic-light assessments of the 'direction of travel' on indicators will provide no insight to whether the UK is achieving, or falling short, on the sustainability implicit in those indicators. Defra should transpose any existing commitments to be targets also for the corresponding SDIs, including on air quality, emissions and renewable energy. It should also review the scope for setting targets on the other SDIs.

We had some concerns with some specific proposed SDIs. The 'debt' indicator has no target or threshold for determining when the level of debt becomes inter-generationally unsustainable. It should be replaced with an indicator which reflects the extent to which public sector debt will be a burden rather than a boon for the next generation. Bond rates could provide an economic view of the country's unsustainability, and other measures which might reflect the social and environmental perspective should be investigated. The bringing together in the 'natural resource use' indicator of both finite and renewable resources is unhelpful, and the inclusion of fossil fuels consumption gives a false impression that we need to preserve this resource, like other resources, for future generations to use. The 'natural resource use' indicator should be revised to comprise all finite non-fossil fuel resource usage.

Defra should produce as full a set of SDIs as possible when it presents the results of its recent consultation exercise, including indicators identified as still under development in July. It should also confirm that the new set of SDIs will be designated as National Statistics, fully subject to the quality controls that that implies.

In the main body of this report, conclusions are printed in bold and recommendations are printed in bold italics.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 29 November 2012