How the green shoots of change are sprouting around Britain

Driving a 4x4 in one part of south-west London could become an even more expensive luxury under plans to penalise gas-guzzlers. Arifa Akbar reports

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Mark Stent sat brooding yesterday as he factored in the extra expense his sleek Mercedes four-wheel drive would incur on top of the house he had just agreed to buy in the south-west London borough of Richmond.

When he decided to buy the home in Barnes he had no idea that the Liberal Democrat council was proposing a sliding scale system of parking permit charges for cars based on CO2 emission levels - of which his "Chelsea tractor" came top.

While he admitted to being fully aware of the polluting effects of his "thirsty vehicle", he said it was one of the few options available to Mr Stent, who has four children between two and 11.

"I would have loved to have bought a hybrid 4x4 that's decent. One of the manufacturers did one but it was not my taste of car. There's just no choice of big vehicle out there. I actually phoned Audi up before I bought the Mercedes to ask for a hybrid engine but it's not available yet," he said.

For Mr Stent, 41, who works in the music business, his four-wheel drive was invaluable when he lived in Wiltshire. But he claimed it was also a necessity rather than a luxury in Barnes.

But regardless of the environmental implications of his vehicle he was outraged that certain car-owners should be penalised by local government.

"We live in a democracy. People should have a choice. I agree 4x4s aren't needed for someone with one or two children but we are walking a thin line and we pay enough for the vehicle and the fuel. Anyway, those who buy a 4x4 aren't going to be put off by one extra tax," he added.

Mr Stent was not the only one riled by the news. The announcement by Richmond Council that from January next year owners of band G vehicles, which include 4x4s, Jaguar X-types and the Renault Espace people carrier, could face a 200 per cent increase in charges was met by some indignation. But a council spokesman said not all the borough's 15,000 permit-holders would lose out.

In an effort to combat environmental damage in one of the worst London boroughs for CO2 emissions, the council had targeted the biggest offenders which, if taken off the road, could reduce emissions by 15 per cent. Residents who own environmentally friendly electric cars would also be rewarded by having to pay no charges.

Many in Richmond could appreciate the beneficial effects of the proposal, but some insisted they had more pressing priorities.

Alison Hyde, 23, had not owned a vehicle until six months ago when her son, Tom, was born. She then invested in a BMW, but only because she felt it was essential.

"Having had a baby I think it's much safer to travel in one and our parents live in the north so we're always travelling on the motorway to Liverpool or Wolverhampton.

"Until a year ago I didn't have a car and I don't think you need one in London if you don't have a child. I'm quite green but it's a bit nanny-like to charge people this way but I do understand it. What I'd really like to see is a green 4x4, a big solid car, but there's not one out there yet," she said.

For Claire Dimmer's family the 4x4 debate was proving to be a divisive issue. Ms Dimmer, 34, a mother of two who owned a 1 litre Hyundai, said she had not felt the need of a 4x4 while bringing up her children and felt it appropriate for those who chose to buy such large vehicles to pay the extra charge. "Those vehicles are just part of the culture and lifestyle. Often those sorts of mums in 4x4s also have three-wheel buggies. It's quite status related.

"There's nothing wrong in being aspirational but there's no argument to say you need it. Like anything if you want these things you have to pay for them."

While her 12-year-old daughter, Briony Balch, was firmly behind her, Briony's grandmother, Wendy Robinson, defended her reasons for buying her Toyota RAV four-wheeler. "I'm too old for status symbols. Mine is definitely for practical reasons, it's a small three-door, 2 litre, four-wheel drive which I use to go up to Scotland for gentle off-road journeys. I'm a mature person and I find them far safer to drive. I think the Government is choosing to tackle this issue from the wrong end of the problem; rather than addressing it with the manufacturers they are charging the buyers."

On one street in St Margaret's, where at least eight four-wheel drives lined the road, it was a contentious issue related to "new money families" who moved in a few decades ago.

Irene and David Wise, who have lived in the borough since 1971, were appalled by the number of big cars in the area and felt carsharing could address the issue of the school run. Mrs Wise, 56, said: "In Richmond I see a lot of bull bars on four-wheel drives even though we have no bulls."

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