In the comprehensive spending review (CSR) there was much talk of making changes to underpin a competitive economy, to put public services on a sustainable footing, fit for a modern age, and to prioritise those areas of public spending which are most likely to support economic growth. But there was no mention of eliminating an unnecessary overhead, which the UK’s struggling economy shares with that of the USA, namely the cost of maintaining two measurement systems side by side for the indefinite future.
In his personal memoir of metric system aversion in the United States, Randy Bancroft writes about the early 1970’s as follows:
“Industry was taking note of the US government’s desires for a metric future. In particular General Motors decided to look into the matter. They convened a large room stuffed with accountants to determine how much this new ‘regulation’ was going to cost them. Indeed it was GM’s intention to calculate a metrification (sic) cost and bill the government and US taxpayers for it. The accountants began poring over the data and soon realised that converting GM to metric was actually going to save them a sweet sum of money. The talk of billing the government for this intrusive regulation vanished, and GM became a metric company.”
GM’s experience is not universal. Frequently, the costs of the changeover are easy to quantify and immediate, whereas the benefits are difficult to cost and long term, a feature that has enabled the UK Department for Transport (DfT) to put off the change for almost forty years. However, there is widespread evidence from around the world that the value of the benefits of the changeover quickly exceeds the initial costs.
“A very British mess” published by UKMA in 2004 listed fifteen examples of serious problems caused by keeping two measurement systems in common use. These included:
(a) dual pricing and dual marking, which increases costs for manufacturers and retailers;
(b) misunderstandings, mistakes and disputes which can occur when different groups involved in a project prefer to use different measurement systems, for example in the construction and letting of office floor space;
(c) the mental adjustment required from a metric environment at school or at work to an imperial one on the highway;
(d) the imperfect grasp that school leavers have of conversions in imperial measures;
(e) the fog that surrounds calculations requiring two systems, for example fuel purchase and consumption;
(f) the provision of signage for highways constructed in one system and signed in another;
(g) the proliferation of units for power and energy, making comparisons difficult;
(h) lack of familiarity with units of measurement in common use for Britons travelling abroad and for visitors to this country;
(i) difficulties in the health service, which needs to use a scientific and rational system of measures internally, while some patients prefer to use a familiar one inherited from their parents or grandparents.
Readers of Metric Views will know of other problems from their own experience.
A feature of this list, unlike that prepared by the accountants at GM, is that it is difficult to put a price tag on each item. But it is also difficult to put a price tag on, for example, the benefits of scientific research yet this escaped cuts in the CSR and received an endorsement from the Chancellor, who said ”it is vital to our future economic success”.
So what could have been done in the CSR to give the UK economy the boost that would result from moving from two measurement systems to one? Readers’ ideas are invited. Metric Views begins the list with two suggestions:
- A statement from Government, reaffirming its belief that Britain’s long term economic success depends on having one system of measurement for all public purposes.
- A commitment from the DfT to convert road signs as soon as reasonably practical. The dual signage of height and width restrictions in cases of repair, necessary replacement and new installations could begin immediately at minimal cost. An estimate of the cost of converting speed and distance signage is required but, unlike the 2006 estimate, it should be appropriate for an era of austerity and should draw on the experience of effective and economical conversion abroad.
“A very British mess”. UKMA. 2004. Available as a printed A4 64 page booklet from firstname.lastname@example.org, £2.50 including p&p, or free from http://www.ukma.org.uk/books/Ordering.aspx?id=1 as a download.