The Royal Commission on Pollution: Curb cars, demand pollution experts

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The Independent Online
The Government was forced into a corner yesterday by a heavyweight environmental report which said that ministers had to move much further and faster on restraining the use of private cars.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution called for a rise of 19p per gallon in the price of road fuel to be announced in next month's Budget, starting a process which would lead to a doubling in the real cost of petrol and diesel by the year 2005.

The commission, composed of leading academics and industrialists, wants a huge shift in public spending into investment and subsidies for public transport, in order to protect the environment and public health. It calls for more freight to be moved by rail, and Government spending on motorway and trunk-road construction and widening to be halved, with the savings invested in public transport.

The Government now has to judge whether the commission's recommendations are too strong for the electorate, and can therefore be largely dismissed or ignored.

The 325-page report, with several challenging and precise targets, repeats most of what leading environmental groups have been advocating for several years. The commission backs its recommendations with a wealth of arguments, costings and evidence that the green groups have never been able to muster.

The report took two and a half years to prepare, involved eight overseas visits, and considered submissions from more than 200 organisations and individuals.

The fact the commission is an establishment body increases pressure on the Government to heed its many recommendations. It has been in existence for 14 years, and is chaired by the climatologist Sir John Houghton, who is an environmental adviser to John Major. Members of the commission are mostly aged over 50 and highly regarded in their individual fields.

The Transport Secretary, Brian Mawhinney, said: 'We need a national debate about whether we are prepared for the costs and changes in our transport habits that will result . . . we will need to look very closely at the report.'

The impact on the economy and jobs from higher fuel prices would have to be carefully examined, and the commission's recommendations on cutting transport noise alone could cost up to pounds 5bn.

Environmental organisations were surprised and delighted, but the roads lobby went on the attack. The AA said the cost of filling the tank of a mid-range car could reach pounds 60 if the commission's recommendations were followed. The Freight Transport Association called the targets 'unrealistic and potentially damaging to the economy and the quality of life'.

The report criticised some existing Government policies such as the deregulation of bus transport which, it said, had not benefited the environment.

Michael Meacher, Labour's transport spokesman, said: 'We endorse the commission's call for clear, measurable targets for cutting car traffic and transferring freight to rail.'