Anti-pollution strategy aims to banish smog

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An end to smogs within 10 years was promised yesterday by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, as he launched the Government's National Air Quality Strategy.

He foresaw a future in which ''there are more families with just one car, more families who manage without owning a car, and more hiring of cars".

But environmentalists were upset and the car industry relieved to find the 188-page document contained no firm commitments to radical new measures for restraining vehicle use or curbing their emissions, which it identifies as one of the main causes of air pollution.

The strategy is largely a restatement of existing policies and legislation, the most important of which flow from European Union laws. It does, however, set new standards for the eight most important types of air pollutant which pose the biggest threat to human health.

The aim is to achieve these standards by 2005, which would eliminate summer and winter smogs. ''In the first decade of the next century, children will begin to say to their parents 'what was smog?','' said Mr Gummer. These standards, among the toughest in the world, were proposed by a committee of health and air quality experts that the Government appointed for the purpose.

The document warns, however, that some of the measures ''should ... be regarded as provisional''. It makes clear that any extra action to improve air quality, over and above what the Government was already committed to before yesterday's launch, will only go ahead if the costs outweigh the benefits.

But it also confirms that the damage done by pollution is enormous. Several thousand people die prematurely each year, and up to 20,000 are admitted to hospital. There are also ''many thousands of instances of illness, reduced activity, distress and discomfort".

The costs of this ill-health, along with damage to buildings, crops, wildlife and habitats is estimated to range from pounds 5bn to more than pounds 13bn a year in Britain.

Local councils are being given new duties to monitor pollution and, where the air quality standards are not being met, to set up "air quality management areas". But it has not yet been decided what enforcement powers they will be given.

Councils can, for instance, restrict the use of roads in their area during smogs to improve air quality. But the document makes clear that it does not expect them to do this, because it would usually make little difference. The traffic would divert on to other roads, and produce just as much or more pollution

The Government promises to consider allowing councils to tax non-residential car parking spaces and introduce schemes charging for road use. But ministers are far from convinced that such powers are needed, and no time has been set aside in the remaining legislative timetable before the election.

Ministers are also committed to produce regulations allowing local council staff to carry out road-side checks on vehicles suspected to be producing illegal quantities of exhaust fumes.

The National Society for Clean Air said the strategy would fail without increased taxation of vehicles which cause more than average pollution - and tax breaks for cleaner ones.

Labour dismissed the strategy as "too little, too late".

Leading article, page 15

Analysis, page 16

Pollution hot-spots

Britain's worst air-pollution hot spots include a village in the constituency of the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer.

Sibton, near the Suffolk coast, has the highest recorded level of ozone pollution in Britain, according to the Department of the Environment, which emphasised that air pollution was not just a city problem.

Ozone comes from vehicle emissions reacting with sunlight.The worst urban spot in Britain, according to the department, is Cromwell Road in London.