They plan to double the number of their most modern measurement stations, hope to place one in every major town within the next four years, and are proposing to link with councils to produce Britain's first 'coherent, quality-assured' national network of sites.
However, they have stopped short of requiring all councils to measure the pollution affecting their areas, and environmentalists stress that even after the improvements, Britain will still lag behind many of its neighbours.
Last month, the Independent on Sunday revealed that Britain has the worst network in Western Europe for monitoring nitrogen dioxide pollution, which doctors increasingly link to asthma. One in seven children now have the disease, which is the only treatable chronic disease to be advancing in Western countries.
Last week, Tim Yeo, the junior environment minister, said: 'We are committed to developing a more effective and thorough system for tackling local air pollution, particularly in our major cities.'
He publicly praised the Independent on Sunday for its 'energy and vigilance in uncovering the most hidden data' and said that, as a result, 'the process of accountability is enormously assisted'.
The Government has promised to double the number of its most modern stations, which monitor five troublesome pollutants mainly for public information, and says it is 'considering' whether it can extend them 'to all major towns' before 1997. It also plans to co- ordinate monitoring done separately by local authorities into a national network, and publish an annual report bringing together this information and showing what areas breach EC and world safety standards.
Council officers and environmentalists welcomed the plans yesterday, but said they did not go far enough. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers called them 'a good first step'.
The environmentalists say that the new network, including the good local-authority monitoring stations, will provide only piecemeal coverage. They say a legal duty should be placed on councils to measure pollution, and that more money should be given to them to do the job.
A survey by the National Society for Clean Air showed that only 14 per cent of councils planned to increase their monitoring; another three-quarters would like to do so, but could not afford it.