John Gummer's new strategy is a good starting point, says Derek Osborn

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The Independent Online
The Government's air quality strategy signals a new phase in the perennial battle to keep our air pure and healthy. The great causes of the past - controlling pollution from factories and from domestic chimneys - are becoming a smaller, tractable and a declining part of the problem. It is now pollution from vehicles which is centre stage because they produce roughly half of our air pollution, and for some types of pollutant they are by far the greatest contributor.

The air quality strategy breaks new ground in proposing standards for the maximum level of each main pollutant that ought to be tolerated, and a strategy for meeting those standards by 2005. It gives a clear account of what we know about the health and other damage these pollutants can cause, and the costs this imposes on the economy - which is of course also a measure of the economic benefit we shall obtain by eliminating or reducing the pollution.

What then must be done? The strategy proposes a mix of action, focused at one end on international and European action, and at the other on local action. It is obvious why we need a European policy for air quality. Air blows about over the whole continent, and the pollution blows with it. But the need for a common European policy on a subject is no guarantee that the states of Europe will agree one - witness the repeated failure of states including the UK to agree and uphold a rational and sustainable common fisheries policy.

For air, however, we have been able to make common cause with our partners - in eastern as well as western Europe - to achieve major improvements. Recent reports from the European Environment Agency show reductions of 27 per cent in sulphur dioxide, 17 per cent in carbon monoxide, and 10 per cent in nitrous oxide across Europe in the last five years.

Good progress, but much more needs still to be done to meet the target standards. And for road traffic the projections show that the sheer numbers of extra vehicles coming on to the streets will overwhelm the benefits of catalytic converters in a few years' time, and air quality will start to deteriorate again unless tighter standards are introduced or patterns of movement altered.

The European Commission's recent proposals to improve fuel standards and tighten up vehicle emissions after major joint studies with the oil and motor industries will be a critical battle-ground. Already there are squeals of anguish from the motor industry. But if we want cleaner air, this battle will have to be fought and won. The air quality strategy is a good rallying point.

Also striking is the document's emphasis on local councils and its determination to equip them to adapt air quality policies and measures suited to local conditions. In some parts there are few sources of pollution. In others there are all too many. In some areas there may be a higher tolerance of some level of pollution as the price of a vital economy and jobs than in others.

It makes good sense for local authorities to establish the appropriate trade-offs. It is refreshing to find a government document that embraces this whole-heartedly, and seeks to give councils powers to establish their own solutions .

There will be those who say that the Government is proposing to give power without resources to local government, and is handing it the most difficult and contentious problems of resolving conflicts which it does not itself know how to solve. But it would be a great mistake to write off the strategy in this way. If the task is real and the political demand for local action is there, powers and resources must eventually follow.

The strategy is only a draft. It now needs contributions from across the spectrum to fill it out, and to turn it from being a document that belongs to the DOE to one that is fully supported by the Department of Transport and the Treasury, by local government and the Environment Agency, by business and industry, and by local communities.

We need to press on with improving the emissions from industry and complete the remaining programmes of domestic smoke control. We need vigorous action to enforce existing standards on vehicle emissions. We need programmes to clean up or phase out filthy older buses and taxis that belch out diesel fumes and give public transport a bad name. We need much more vigorous experimentation with zero emission systems and vehicles. We need a much more determined effort to link planning, traffic management and public transport in a coherent way which gives people a genuine and viable alternative to using their cars.

Only in this way will we have a strategy that animates society, and helps to bring about a real difference to our environment. This latest document could be a good starting point.

The key test will be the ability of the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport to make common cause. It is many years since they were joined in a single department and now they are moving into physically separate buildings. Our future air quality - and many other environmental goals - depends on the two working together.