An opportunity for savings overlooked in the comprehensive spending review

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


“The mismeasures of a country”. Randy Bancroft. 2010. Available as a download from for a small fee, or in the UK from UKMA by e-mailing

“A very British mess”. UKMA. 2004. Available as a printed A4 64 page booklet from, £2.50 including p&p, or free from as a download.

4 thoughts on “An opportunity for savings overlooked in the comprehensive spending review”

  1. I’ve just returned from a 6400 km motoring holiday in France and Spain. I found the French and Spanish road signing to be greatly superior to ours, and I never cease to wonder why our policy makers in the DfT refuse to learn from those countries across the Channel. Road signs were mostly pictograms understandable in any language. Only occasionally in rural Spain did I come across worded signs where some knowledge of Spanish would have helped.

    On returning to the UK, the sight of the first road sign leaving Dover docks saying customs in ’80 yards’ was a shock, and what Europeans must think of that I can only imagine. Later, on the M20, at various road works, I saw signs for width restrictions in Imperial only (shocking where at least 50% of the truck traffic is foreign-registered), and other signs saying ‘No hard shoulder for 3000 yards’ and ‘No hard shoulder for 1000 yards’ – distances that are impossible to measure whether your odometer is metric or imperial, and I would say impossible to guess at either. Cartainly for the many non-British cars using that road, those signs are meaningless – and hence a danger.

    I have had extensive correspondence with the Trafic Signs Policy Branch of the DfT, all I imagine to no avail, as my last reply simply said that their position on retaining Imperial signage cannot be changed. I find it sad, not only that this country is so far behind mainland Europe (and of course the rest of the world) in completing its move to metric measures, but that there is some perverse satisfaction by many in power in staying this way.

    The world is changing, and anyone who resists catching up with the new powerhouses of China, Brazil, India and many other countries is doing this country a disservice.


  2. When an incident occurs, some emergency services dispatch vehicles to both sides of the motorway as they do not know on which side of the motorway the incident occurred.

    Driver Location Signs were introduced to assist the emergency services in getting to incidents. In addition to pinpointing the location of the incident, they also give the carriageway concerned. If the Department for Transport publicised driver location signs, there would be a saving in the number of vehicles that would be needed to attend an incident.


  3. As someone who now lives in France, I agree that France has better signage than in the UK overall, certainly they are much easier to understand. Although in my opinion, the best signs are in Germany. The DfT policy makers would do well to learn from Germany, France, or Spain.

    Given that the public and emergency services benefit, it is strange that the DfT doesn’t publicise Driver Location Signs. I wonder why this is, could it be that some in the DfT are so averse to the metric units on them? Or is it that the DfT and the government are more worried about the headlines in the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, etc.?

    Further to suggestion 2 (A commitment from the DfT to convert road signs as soon as reasonably practical), I would like to add that the UK government should also ratify and fully implement (or just fully implement) the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals that it signed up to, and have a plan for conversion for all signs needing conversion (including metrication and 24 hour time of course), but which takes into account current economic conditions.

    As we already knew, Vienna Convention compliant signage will be much clearer and often smaller, will be cheaper to create and maintain, and this can save a lot of money in the long term, and most of the existing designs do not need to change. It is not easy, but it would be interesting to estimate how much money is saved every year after conversion.


  4. On 6 August 2011, I responded to the Red Tape Challenge by posting a comment on the Weights and Measures section of the Red Tape Challenge website. It is worth repeating the text of my comment in full here as it is highly relevant to this article:

    “This Red Tape Challenge is about identifying and eliminating waste and inefficiency. The use of the dual measurement system where the UK continues to use two incompatible systems (imperial and metric) is costly, unnecessary, wasteful and inefficient. The UK could standardise on the metric system, which is a world standard, is suitable for all purposes and can meet all our needs.

    The current system requires more complex calculations, extensive knowledge of the myriad multiples used in imperial, many conversion tables and greatly increases the chances of error. In some safety-critical environments such as nuclear power construction, this could be very serious. NASA lost a spacecraft at a loss of $300m because of a mix-up between two measurement systems. It costs us money as well. If you ever wondered why cars cost a lot more here than in other EU countries, the failure of the UK to conform with European standards is a major reason. Increased costs of separate production lines are passed on to consumers. A grossly disproportionate number of bridge strikes by foreign lorries is probably caused by use of imperial restriction signs which many foreigners do not understand. The requirement to use imperial units on road signs leads to larger, much dearer and more cluttered road signs whereas metric ones could be much cheaper and simpler. Dual unit signs and pairs of separate metric and imperial warning signs are especially wasteful and inefficient.

    The Magna Carta document of 1215 recognised the need for a single measurement system. No country needs two systems.

    You can show that you are serious about the Red Tape Challenge by completing metrication and abandoning imperial units. If you are not willing to do that, it shows that this is just a populist gimmick. It is about time that you stood up to those law-breakers who call themselves Metric Martyrs and Active Resistance to Metrication. It is about time that you faced down the eurosceptics and their supporters in the tabloid press. For the anti-EU brigade, opposition to metrication has become an article of faith even though the EU and metrication are separate issues. They are not doing us any favours.

    Show that you mean it when you say that you will take the hard decisions to cut waste and inefficiency by completing the metrication programme. The rest of the Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland have done that and are not going back to imperial. We should do so too.”

    I feel that I have been vindicated over my “populist gimmick” remark. The government has frequently talked about clearing up the mess left by Labour. However, they have been happy to condone and continue the measurement mess left by Labour, one of the biggest messes of all, which is highly visible all around us. Who now remembers the Red Tape Challenge? It has turned out to be little more than a public relations exercise. We saw that when they abandoned the proposal for mandatory dual signs for bridges, despite a DfT cost assessment that showed that it would save £1.8 million over 10 years. They talk about eliminating waste and inefficiency but support the waste and inefficiency in using two incompatible measurement systems. When we hear what they say about clearing up the mess and eliminating waste and inefficiency and see their inaction over the completion of the metrication programme, which would achieve these objectives, we ought to question how serious they are about that.


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