DoE leaves others to fight smog

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New powers to restrict town centre traffic to vehicles owned by permit-holders and ban drivers from leaving engines running should be given to councils, says a leaked Government report on air quality.

But ministers propose no national policy for moving freight from road to rail, think their role in influencing how people travel is "limited", and put faith in "improved driving practice".

A draft of the "United Kingdom's National Air Quality Strategy", produced by the Department of the Environment, places much emphasis on improvements in technology and changes in individual decisions.

It rules out national targets of air quality improvement, although it suggests that they are relevant at local authority level.

Its leaking coincided with the decision by the Department of the Environment to warn drivers of cars without catalytic converters to stay at home.

Yesterday the Government's strategy was described as a "staggeringly complacent approach to a crisis" by Clare Short, Labour's Transport spokeswoman.

The Government's document concedes that "some recent statistical analyses suggest that even at the substantially lower levels of airborne pollution that we experience today, there are associations with premature mortality, chronic illness and discomfort for sensitive groups".

Ratios of ground-level ozone, the main component of summer smog, "have tended to increase in recent years, with a number of ozone 'episodes' each summer in most European community countries".

The document says the Government will consider "permissive enabling legislation allowing local authorities to introduce: taxing of non-residential parking, congestion charging or area licensing - where drivers wishing to enter a designated area would need a permit."

The move would add to the powers councils already have, which many believe to be insufficient. But the document adds that this work would need to take account of the Government's conclusion "that congestion charging is currently not a practical proposition for the capital, although it remains under consideration for the longer term".

It also promises to "bring forward regulations allowing local authorities to prevent drivers in parked vehicles from leaving their engines running".

Whitehall and local government will try to draw up "good practice guidance in the use of powers to restrict access to roads". Ministers will issue guidance on traffic management schemes designed to reconcile their differing aims.

The document falls well short of the hopes of the Opposition and environmental and transport pressure groups. Ms Short, who this week launches a consultation on Labour's proposals at a London conference called "Building Consensus", said: "The Government have never given us a coherent transport policy because of their ideological attachment to the market.

"Now they are opting out by pushing the responsibility for this crisis management on to local authorities and individuals."