Leading Article: Last gasp for the car

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The Independent Online
A WORLD IN which the air is so polluted that millions choke to death has long been one of the science fiction writers' favourite nightmares, along with the melting of the polar ice caps and a population expansion that forces us to live in cities of 100 million. We had reason to think that the pollution nightmare had receded. After the London smog that killed 4,000 people in a weekend in 1952, clean air legislation made the traditional 'pea-souper', caused by a mixture of sulphur dioxide and smoke, a thing of memory and even nostalgia. December sunshine in the capital increased by 70 per cent. Now, smog is back in a new and, to most people, more sinister form: less visible, less obviously dirty but potentially just as lethal. The new smogs are caused when pollutants such as ozone, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are trapped by anticyclonic air. This summer, the pollution has reached alarming levels. The main culprit is the car.

The old joke about governments is that they would like to tax the air we breathe; the joke about this one, perhaps, is that it would like to create a market in air. (Not quite a joke, because better air quality is and always has been available to those who can afford houses in the countryside and the quieter suburbs.) Yet even the advocates of a minimalist state must concede that only governments can take responsibility for ensuring clean air. Throughout history, governments have been remarkably ineffective in doing so; the first attempt to cut smoke pollution was made in 1257. After the Clean Air Acts, ministers assumed that the problem was over. Margaret Thatcher's first administration shut down the Medical Research Council's Air Pollution Unit and the Clean Air Council. A decade of research was lost, the very decade in which the new smog was developing.

This has left us unsure about the effects. We know, for example, that asthma has reached epidemic proportions - the only treatable, chronic disease that is advancing in Western countries. It affects one in seven British children; it costs at least pounds 750m a year in lost production, treatment costs and social security payments; it kills 2,000 people a year. Further, as we disclosed two weeks ago, the weather and pollution conditions of the past month coincided with an unprecedented flood of hospital callers suffering from asthma. But we still do not know precisely what role car fumes play in causing the disease.

It seems almost certain, however, that pollution plays some role, and possibly the leading role, in exacerbating it. So what should be done? The Government can certainly set up a proper air pollution monitoring programme. The present one - Britain has the smallest number of nitrogen dioxide monitoring stations per head of population of any EU country - is worse than useless, promising clean air on polluted days and keeping people with breathing difficulties indoors when it is perfectly safe for them to go out. It can also set air quality standards, instead of insisting, as it nearly always does in negotiations with other EU countries, on much vaguer 'targets'.

But what is needed above all is a change of attitude. Ministers should accept that the car, which once liberated us, is rapidly enslaving us. Consider how many supermarkets and shopping centres are now inaccessible except by car; consider how many children are transported to school by car; consider how many job advertisements demand a current driving licence; consider how even hospital closures put another premium on car ownership. The car, because it is so often convenient, has become central to our lives - a classic case of what economists call the tyranny of small choices. Ministers should make the control of car use a central principle of policy. The Chancellor has already promised to raise petrol taxes progressively above inflation; tolls and road- pricing are on the agenda. But using taxation alone to deter car use may prove both ineffective and unfair - ineffective because the better-off will still clog up the roads, unfair because the poor may have to abandon their cars. The Government should swallow its ideological misgivings and accept the need for more direct regulation: restricting cars in city centres, forcing manufacturers to produce cars that cause less pollution, using planning controls more vigorously to make car use less necessary; and (this would require the biggest conversion) boosting public transport. The car, we are learning, is not just noisy and smelly. It also threatens health; this time, we should not have to wait for 4,000 people to die in a weekend smog before we take action.