The Department of Environment also wants to set safety limits for leading air pollutants which, if breached, would lead to immediate curbs on traffic such as lower speed limits on motorways.
The sort of pollution levels at which these restraints would be triggered have been reached twice in recent years in London and other big conurbations - in December 1991 and last month;traffic is now the main source of air pollution in Britain.
Decisions on limits and the kind of traffic curbs that a breach would trigger will not be made for many months, but the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, does intend to introduce new laws for council air quality management in the Environment ProtectionBill now going through Parliament.
Councils with bad air quality, mostly in the larger cities, will be required to bring in policies that discourage car commuting and promote travel on foot, bicycle or by public transport.
Launching a White Paper on air quality management yesterday, Mr Gummer said his overall aim was to speed up the improvement in air quality now underway thanks largely to the introduction of catalytic converters on all new cars.
He said by acting now Britain could avoid episodes of very severe pollution and the need to introduce drastic, instantaneous curbs on road traffic. But he said he had that option "in my bottom drawer".
Mr Gummer also said that when bad air quality threatened, the public should be warned and drivers asked to leave their cars at home.
Councils and the National Society for Clean Air welcomed Mr Gummer's announcement, but Friends of the Earth campaigner Fiona Weir said it was a grave disappointment.
She said there was no firm commitment to restrain traffic during the kind of severe pollution episodes which had occurred recently and were bound to happen again. Nor was the Government committed to keeping ozone levels below the safety level that its own expert panel had recommended last year.
Last summer, levels of ozone, one of the most important air pollutants, exceeded the World Health Organisation's air quality standard across much of the country for long periods of time. And just before Christmas, high pressure weather conditions allowedhigh levels of particulates and oxides of nitrogen to build up in London and other big cities, also breaching WHO standards.
Under the proposed new legislation, district and borough councils will have a new duty to review local air quality and be given government funds to carry out the necessary assessment. Those councils covering areas where air quality targets are breached will have to set up "Air Quality Management Areas" with a plan for improving the situation.
Neighbouring councils will be expected to join together in drawing up city and region-wide plans. What kind of measures Mr Gummer wants to go into in these plans is, as yet, unclear.However, it is likely to include such things as discouraging the provision of car parking spaces for office workers and favouring public transport and car pooling. Councils will have to take air quality into account in all planning and transport policies.
The Government intends to set a base standard for the nine most important air pollutants, to be achieved everywhere in Britain by 2005. But it admits that the limit for ozone recommended by its own expert panel - 50 parts per billion - cannot be achievedin that time.