Car firms plot PR onslaught on Labour

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THE MOTOR industry is planning a pounds 12m public relations campaign against the transport policies of the Government, which it believes is "no friend of the car", it was revealed yesterday.

The five-year strategy, which will target schoolchildren as well as politicians and the media, was disclosed in a confidential internal memo from the industry's umbrella body, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), leaked to the environmental pressure group, Friends of the Earth.

The campaign's aim, the document reveals, will be to reverse the "growing currency" given to the green lobby's policies on reducing car use by "the public and Government".

It will seek to counter the restrictions on car use foreshadowed in the Transport White Paper published last month. Among many other measures, the White Paper envisaged local authority tolls for driving and parking in town centres.

Friends of the Earth said that the leak would severely embarrass the motor trade, but the SMMT said yesterday that the industry was working closely with the Government, and attempts to suggest otherwise were "facile".

However, the document does state bluntly that the Government "is no friend of the car".

The five-page memo envisages using schools programmes - a trial programme next year and an extended programme in 2000 - as well as campaign weeks, conferences, direct mail-shots and eventually a pounds 10m advertising campaign, to convince both the public and policy makers that the industry is taking its environmental responsibilities seriously. The ultimate objective, it says, is to protect "the long-term commercial freedom of the motor industry and the lifestyle freedom of car users".

In shaping the campaign, the memo says, the industry should move away from stressing the benefits of clean-engine technology - "scientific arguments alone proved no defence for Shell in the Brent Spar [oil-platform disposal] fiasco", it points out - and should use positive arguments such as "cars provide mobility and independence".

Friends of the Earth said it was "hogwash" for the car industry to say it was environmentally responsible.

"This document confirms that the motor industry is not only cynical but immoral," said Tony Juniper, the group's policy and campaigns director. "Why should they have commercial freedom and everyone else be denied the right to breathe clean air? Instead of spending money on trying to manufacture public opinion they should be helping to solve Britain's environmental and transport problems by discouraging excessive car use."

The SMMT said it had nothing to apologise for or to be embarrassed about in the memo, which it described as an internal discussion document. "There's nothing new about the motor industry selling its story," said Al Clarke, the society's spokesman. "We have been conducting a PR campaign since 1902.

"It shows that as a responsible industry we are trying to ... inform people about the real benefits that modern technology is delivering. We are delighted to be working with the Government and their goal of reducing the environmental impact of motor vehicles."