Happiness survey statistics look to planners' environmental brief for answers

The prime minister's intention to use government statisticians to undertake regular surveys of the national state of well-being is not an ill-defined and untested idea plucked, like the "big society", from the recesses of his imagination.

There is in fact a growing group of politicians and academics who believe that to serve people best, governments need to understand how psychological and environmental contentment can be generated and sustained.

David Cameron is right to lead the government towards joining them, even if he will be open to the charge that advocating quality of life assessments that are not dependent on financial criteria appears suspiciously convenient for an era of austerity.

He has, however, made clear his belief that there is more to life than money since well before recession struck.

Nevertheless, some clarification is required about the precise purpose of asking the Office for National Statistics to add happiness questions to its current household surveys.

The aim must be to gauge both subjective feelings and the practical manifestations of personal happiness. Absolute results are elusive but repeated surveys could show trends in perceived well-being and allow compensatory policy to be developed.

It is hard to see how this will not result in central government establishing acceptable happiness levels as policy targets.

Even in the context of local autonomy, the coalition will need to apply minimum standards, for example in the work-life balance, to prevent exploitative conditions of employment.

Once more town and country planning finds itself near the centre of the policy argument, since a high proportion of people cite their environmental circumstances as a major source of their perceived happiness or discontent.

In particular, commuting is reported as significantly limiting well-being. Reducing or eliminating the journey to work is in most contexts a prime planning purpose. Access to green space is similarly important.

Work in DEFRA confirms the long-standing planning assumption that in the living environment, green places add to well-being.

But Cameron has yet to allow his own perceptions of happiness to become demonetarised. In justifying the new housing benefit restrictions last week, he asked whether people on £20,000 a year would be happy to know that their taxes subsidise central London houses for the poor.

If, as happiness guru Richard Layard observes, it is a cause of discontent to constantly compare oneself to others, politicians and advertisers alike have a lot of adjustments to make.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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