Just how good is life in Britain's once green and pleasant land? Tired of merely producing economic data to convince its people that they have never had it so good, the government has come up with a cunning plan to plot the quality of life. Until now the only official yardstick of the nation's well-being has been the dry, abstract Gross Domestic Product. But last week ministers decided counting the number of skylarks and song thrushes might be a better way of measuring the opportunities for contentment. In an attempt to focus thinking on the importance of all the factors that contribute to the welfare of the British, 13 measures will be used to determine whether the United Kingdom is becoming a better place in which to live. The so-called headline indicators will cover health, education, housing and the environment, as well as the more traditional numbers used to measure economic growth and employment. But alongside these the Government is proposing that new figures such as the population of wild birds found in the countryside should join the ranks of official Whitehall statistics. This new indicator will cover 139 species of birds including the skylark, corn bunting, song thrush and willow tit, whose populations have fallen by more than half over the past 20 years as a result of intensive farming methods and the destruction of hedgerows. The man behind the new strategy, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a long-time advocate of environmental concerns, wants the new figures to get the same sort of coverage as already established indicators. Individual government departments already collect many of the figures, but Mr Prescott hopes publishing them together will provide a regular quality-of-life snapshot. As well as sending ornithologists out to count the number of birds, water and air quality will be measured to check on pollution levels. Surveys will also be taken of the nation's housing to see how many homes are fit to live in. With road traffic set to increase by more than a third over the next 20 years, Mr Prescott has taken the gamble of including car usage in his index. He is hoping to reduce the number of vehicles on the road to cut back on congestion, despite strong opposition from car owners. 'We are committed to a new way of thinking - one which puts environmental, social and economic concerns alongside each other at the heart of decision making. Sustainable development links the standard of living and the quality of life, not just here in Britain but right across the world,' Mr Prescott said. He is not the first minister to dream up ways of painting a greener picture of the UK. Former Hong Kong Governor, Chris Patten, was responsible for a similar scheme when he was an environment minister in 1991. That scheme lasted only two years and was quietly dropped after the figures began to be used to point out where the then-Conservative government was backsliding on its promises to improve the environment. While the SAR Government may be interested in a new strategy of distracting people from gloomy economic indicators, most commentators in the UK have been sceptical about how useful the new data will be. The Financial Times was dismissive about the attempt to downplay the importance of GDP figures. 'Why measure birds rather than cats? And why were divorce, crime, drug abuse, poverty, hospital waiting lists, or watching football not included,' the paper asked. Green groups have welcomed the attempt to put environmental issues more clearly on the agenda but were doubtful the new skylark index would persuade people they were better off. 'Often policy has been driven by the idea that more is always better, that if we have more products, more money, more growth then things get better,' said Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth. 'In fact the figures already show that is not the case, yet the Treasury has not changed economic policy to take them into account.' Others have attempted to draw up their own indices to show how happy, or otherwise, the British are, now they are enjoying the benefits of a relatively prosperous economy. Britain is four times richer than it was 30 years ago but with little to suggest the extra cash has made people any happier. In the same period depression has increased 10-fold - which may explain why statisticians who measure such things found the average person laughs only six times a day in the UK. British workers put in longer hours than anywhere else in Europe and a survey by the London School of Economics found most people wanted to work shorter hours with many people prepared to take a pay cut if it meant they could spend more time with their families. While money may not buy happiness, poverty definitely makes people miserable, and while boring GDP continues to grow by an average of 2.5 per cent a year, most people in the UK are continuing to see their standard of living improve. But their quality of life may just depend on the skylarks.