Michael Meacher: 'People must make the link between pollution and health'

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The Independent Online

Not long before the general election that brought Labour to power, a newspaper reviewed the Shadow Cabinet. No doubt informed by the spinning we have all since come to know, it ranked each member by his or her standing with Tony Blair and his inner circle.

Harriet Harman came top, with the simple epithet "the bee's knees". The survey worked it way down through the ministerial wannabes, gradually diminishing appreciation shading into distaste and dislike. Finally, right at the bottom, came Michael Meacher with the verdict "hated absolutely".

Sure enough, he was the only shadow not to be appointed to the Cabinet. Few expected the new Environment Minister to stay in office for more than a year. But it was Ms Harman who was sacked in the first reshuffle, while five and a half years later Mr Meacher is still there, one of the few ministers whose reputation has consistently grown. In a government full of quasi-Trots turned neo-Thatcherites, the man once seen as Tony Benn's vicar on Earth has emerged as a trusted voice of reason.

He owes much of his unpredicted success to an equally unexpected ability to get the Government out of trouble. He saved its genetically modified bacon by being the first minister to empathise with the public's distrust of GM foods and crops. And at the height of the foot and mouth epidemic it was to him whom Tony Blair turned to resolve the escalating crisis.

Now – with The Independent on Sunday's revelations that traffic fumes cause asthma – he is having to grasp another hot potato. It is made all the more scorching by the Government's U-turn from prioritising public transport to emphasising road building and the private car.

Whitehall's reaction has been to downplay the significance of the studies, from California and Nottingham, which indicate that pollution causes the disease. After an initial temptation to follow suit, Mr Meacher rejects this approach, calling the Californian research "a thorough and very serious study that needs to be looked at very carefully with regard to causation".

He adds: "I do not deny that the evidence that traffic fumes either cause or contribute to asthma among children is very strong." Air pollution, he insists, is being reduced. (He's right, apart from ozone – one of the pollutants most implicated in asthma – where little progress has been made). But he admits it is "still too high".

This is mainly because "quite dramatically tightening standards" for car emissions and the quality of fuel are "swamped" by the increase in traffic – "a doubling of car ownership and a corresponding more than doubling of car traffic over the last 30 years".

"This is a real problem," he continues. "The Government is not suggesting that there can be a direct limitation of car ownership or car use. No government is going to suggest that. But we are fighting a battle that is very difficult to win given the sheer increase in traffic volume."

But hang on a minute. Didn't this government come to office with a pledge to reduce traffic? Has it abandoned that ambition? Pause. "We have not sacrificed the objective. We did try sincerely very hard. But we found it very difficult to achieve." This should be taken with a pinch of salt. Downing Street sabotaged John Prescott's proposals for a revolution in traffic policy before they could be implemented. But his next point is incontestable.

"This is a democratic issue. One has to make the choice between people's desire to use cars and their wish to have a reduction in air pollution that will improve their health. It is very difficult because people, in using their cars, do not see that if everyone does the same it impacts on health. It is a matter for public debate, not government diktat, as to where people want to draw that line."

Maybe the new evidence on pollution and asthma could make a difference? Mr Meacher agrees. "We need to establish in people's minds that increasing pollution – if this is the cause – damages children's health. If people realise that, and understand it, and believe it, this could change cultural attitudes."

In the meantime he places most hope in new technologies to produce cars which emit little or no pollution – though he will not be drawn on proposals by Professor David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, to announce that by a certain date sales of new petrol or diesel driven vehicles will be banned. He believes that the cars will be driven on to the market by popular demand.

"People want a vehicle that is going to be emission-free. People want to drive something that is not damaging to the environment or human health. If you can produce such a vehicle you will have a worldwide sale, and all the car manufacturers realise that."

Sweet reason again. No Blairite free marketeer could have put it better. But once again, the job of convincing the public is being done not by their spinners but by the man they once loved to hate.

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