How we can clear the air

Nicholas Schoon tells the Government five better ways to civilise the car
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The Independent Online
We could clean up Britain's air, quickly and dramatically, and continue to have high levels of car use and car ownership. But we will not succeed in doing so if we stick to the Government's UK Air Quality Strategy, launched yesterday.

This is a very cautious, bland document, published eight months after the originally intended date and consisting almost entirely of a restatement of existing policies and laws. It bears all the scars of prolonged battles between government departments, and ministers' overall calculation that voters would punish any party that punished the motorist.

You don't get something for nothing, and improving the quality of our air requires changing attitudes and habits. That can be done, and to some extent it already is, in Britain and elsewhere. But it takes courage and leadership, a readiness to confront the lobbyists, the pro-car press, and a careful playing on the guilt which comes with the average motorist's hypocrisy about the car.

There are measures available which would reduce traffic, make vehicles fundamentally less polluting and our cities and countryside much more pleasant to be in. To begin with, however, a smog of confusions and misunderstandings has to be cleared.

Air pollution is already in rapid decline and will continue to fall for several years. This is due to reams of European Union and domestic legislation and policies, but two factors stand out.

One is the collapse of Britain's coal-mining industry associated with the privatisation of electricity. More and more power stations burn gas, a much cleaner fuel than coal. Second, European Union directives have set tougher and tougher standards for vehicle exhaust fumes and will continue to do so over the next 10 years.

Why, if things are getting better, is there much more press coverage of smogs these days? The answer is that the Government has a much better air-quality monitoring network and is more open with the information.

So if air pollution is falling why should we do more? The best reason is that we know, increasingly, that air pollution is dangerous, destructive and extremely expensive. The Government accepts that air pollution shortens thousands of lives each year and puts up to 20,000 people in hospital. Also, it damages buildings, crops, wildlife and habitats.

Furthermore, if we set out to reduce pollution by reducing road traffic we reap benefits which are just as important as improved air quality. We cut noise. We make our towns and cities more civilised and tolerable, and our countryside more like real countryside. We no longer need so many expensive new roads.

And while air pollution may be falling now, it is expected to start rising again in 10 years as economic growth overwhelms the gains. Experience shows that as people become more affluent they use their cars more and own more of them. The hard task of breaking that link and social habit needs to start now.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, understands that better than most. He had all the right rhetoric for yesterday's launch of the new strategy, envisaging a future in which more families would hire cars, own just one car, or manage without one altogether. But he had no new policies to offer.

So what could be done without incurring large increases in public spending?

First, as advocated by the Civic Trust, a tax should be introduced for non-residential car-parking spaces in places where central and local government want to discourage car use and encourage a switch to bicycles, car pooling and public transport. City-centre office blocks and out-of-town superstores would be prime candidates.

The money raised could be used to make public transport more desirable, reliable and intensive. The sums would be substantial; pounds 1,000 a year per space works out at less than pounds 3 a day for individuals , but if the tax covered a million spaces pounds 1bn per annum would flow in.

Second, one of John Gummer's greatest green achievements is to persuade the Cabinet to put up fuel duties by 5 per cent, each year, above the rate of inflation into the indefinite future.

This is brilliant. It sends a clear signal to motorists and car manufacturers that motoring is going to become more and more expensive - and that therefore they should opt for more efficient, less polluting cars and/or drive less.

But it is also deeply flawed, for there is no guarantee that any of the extra money raised will be used to make alternatives - such as telecommuting, car sharing and public transport - more attractive.

And there are other, equally valid calls on this money. Some could be used to subsidise the clean-up of bus exhausts. Competition and cost-cutting have turned them into some of the dirtiest vehicles on our streets. Some could be used to pay a few hundred pounds to jalopy drivers to scrap their filthy old banger and buy a new car with a catalytic converter. That is one move, pioneered in France, which would delight Britain's car makers.

Third, set higher rates of vehicle excise duty for cars that produce more pollution. There is no absolutely fair and precise way to do this, but the easiest would be to use bands of fuel consumption figures as the basis. Gas guzzlers should be charged at least three times as much as the most economical, cleanest vehicles which make up 25 per cent of the car fleet.

The rate should be set at zero to encourage ultra-green vehicles such as electric cars and Greenpeace's cleaned-up version of the Renault Twingo. This would encourage manufacturers to make production runs and not just one-off prototypes.

Fourth, intensify the mild, sporadic clampdown on old, dirty cars with badly tuned engines and no catalytic converters. This filthy minority produces the majority of the pollution. What is needed are frequent roadside checks, in which suspect cars are pulled over by local council environment health officers, emissions checked and fixed penalty fine notices issued along with a demand for an engine re-tune.

But the Government insists that only traffic wardens and policemen should be allowed to stop cars. They are already kept busy by their existing duties, and are loath to assume extra responsibilities for stopping dirty cars. The Government needs to promise the police the extra resources to allow them to do this.

Fifth and finally, we should continue to make it less and less attractive for firms and employees to run company cars as a jobs perk.

These are the kind of measures needed if we are to civilise the car and start to break our over-reliance on it. Sticks have to be accompanied by carrots. Most drivers will then change both their outlook and habits, not just because of the money but because the new taxes and incentives signify what is socially acceptable.