This has been big news in my life for the last couple of days. A town in between Birmingham and Coventry in the West Midlands has been ‘officially’ named as the best place to live in Britain. It is more than possible that such news passed you by but I have not been able to escape the revelation. This is because I gather much of my news from social media feeds and I have many connections on these platforms who would share such an item of current affairs as my hometown is indeed, Solihull.
As far as I can tell, the news seems to have caused a dichotomy of responses from ‘Silhillians’ (as the Daily Mail so kindly informed us that is what residents of Solihull are called), either a smugness of ‘I knew it’ or a sense of repulsion and confusion of ‘pfft, what? Is this a joke’. I am of the second category. Now it is not that I don’t like Solihull (in fact growing up I loved the place) but I do not view it in the most favourable of lights these days and certainly wouldn’t claim it to be the fulcrum of settlements in Britain, which led me to look a little more closely at the basis of the claim and reach the conclusion that quantification can be misleading, inappropriate and a problem.
The basis of the claim that Solihull is the best place to live in the UK stems from a new survey conducted by energy comparison company Uswitch known as ‘The Quality of Life Index’. This index compared statistics on 24 categories from 138 regions about the quality of life and concluded that Solihull came out on top. The argument of this post is that this is incorrect. An argument not (solely) based on my growing distaste towards Solihull but out of my strong belief that not everything in life can be or should be quantified and in cases where it is, it should be done with extreme weariness and understanding of its limits and impact.
My first qualm with the index are the categories chosen to exemplify quality of life. Any decision of categories only results in excluding many aspects that could be deemed by others as essential to their quality of life; it privileges one person’s or group’s point of view at the expense of others. How was such a decision made and how were they weighted in the index – how is it possible to claim some aspects of life more important than others? The categories used include salary, disposable income, food costs, energy costs, petrol costs, council tax levels, car insurance premiums, house insurance premiums, crime rates, employment rates, house prices, mortality rates, life expectancy, hours of sunshine and broadband speeds. Now, there are very few of those which I would suggest combine to make a great place to live, let alone give an indication to the quality of life. What good is having a long life with lots of money and good broadband if you spend your days being bored as there are no recreational facilities, social meeting places, transport to access such facilities or you have no social relations there? If you insist on quantifying quality of life I would suggest alternative categories such as amount of accessible green spaces, vitality of the night-time economy, cost and availability of public transport, cost and availability of recreation facilities, number of social relations and provision of cycle lanes to name but a few.
My principal qualm with the index, and many other indexes for that matter, is the attempt to reduce important aspects of human existence into numbers and categories when it is often not possible or desirable. I cannot fathom how the meanings people attribute to places and what it is actually like to be there haven’t been accounted for in deciding the best place to live. To ignore experience and meaning is easy to do (they are not easily quantifiable) but is a dreadful oversight. Surely the feelings people have about a place, whether they feel at home there, whether the neighbours are friendly, whether it is aesthetically pleasing, whether you feel safe, whether it is homogenous or unique and whether they glean a good sense of place are hugely important in deciding the best place to live or not? Quantification cannot give these insights despite Uswitch’s claim that the index ’provide[s] a complete picture of life in each region’.
The social sciences got over its obsession with statistics in the 1970s yet our current ‘league-table’ society is still fixated with them. Statistics are extremely powerful; they claim authority, they provide an answer, they are easily communicated, they are easily remembered, we like facts and thus they have much clout. But this is why we should be so careful with their use, ensuring what is being quantified can be, that it is being so in an appropriate manner, that other aspects aren’t being overlooked and that broad sweeping statements aren’t being made without proper substance and rigour. Statistics affect the real world in severe ways; policies are implemented, funds allocated, facilities opened, facilities closed, lives improved, lives ruined. We must quantify and use statistics very carefully and appropriately. What will the impact of this questionable index be? For those at the top and the bottom? For migration, tourism, development, investment, morale, experience, the place?