Leading article: Motor pollution is an issue for local will

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The Independent Online
The Government's announcement yesterday of targets for cutting motor vehicle pollution over the next few years bore all the hallmarks of Gummerism. This is the political condition associated with the current Environment Secretary. John Gummer's patron saint is evidently St Augustine of Dagenham - give me exhaust pipe continence but, please, not yet. Mr Gummer's concern for the well-being of the physical environment is in no doubt. He cares about the countryside, about old buildings ... and all that. But heart is not enough.

Government is a many-sided struggle between departments and politicians, who are mostly utter growth-addicts. Gummerism has turned out to mean knuckling under to the Department of Trade and Industry's fear that hard- nosed environmental policy is "bad for growth" - an argument that fails to see how innovations in transport and emission control could give this country a leading edge in the development of products and programmes. It is unable to face up to the job of reorganising central government to cope with such inter-departmental questions as how cities are shaped, how housing choice connects with land-use and transport and the physical qualities of life. Is the "housing boom" being so eagerly talked up by his colleagues really compatible with the environmental progress he wants to see?

It is not entirely John Gummer's fault that the Department of the Environment now ranks low in the pecking order. Its lack of weight with the Treasury and Number 10 helps to explain the long delay in getting these targets for various pollutants off the Tarmac. But it is Mr Gummer's fault that his policy pronouncements do not recognise that there is no way you can separate out "environment" from fiscal, industrial, regulatory and a host of other policies delivered by other departments. Mr Gummer exhibits an intellectual failing common among politicians, though odd among politicians of the neo-Thatcherite right. He exhibits a touching faith in dealing with pollution from cars by mean of policy - something government does. Air-quality improvements, however, rest on a myriad of changes in how we live our collective lives, how we distribute ourselves in physical space, how we choose to move about in town and country.

Mr Gummer will say, rightly, that identifying and controlling vehicles producing excess levels of pollutants is a specific first step; in setting targets (albeit for 2005) the UK has pushed itself to the forefront of European Union states. (Still, it's noteworthy how even erstwhile Eurosceptic ministers are wont to wring their hands and say "If only the European Commission would bail us out by setting common standards".) But he has pulled his punches on the question of cost. The cost of cars will have to rise but the degree of pain that causes is bound up with our preferences not just about modes of transport, but about where and how we live. Gummerism drives nowhere unless it takes us all into a much wider debate about "urbanism".

That is an abstract word for a concrete and daily set of choices, by ordinary people, not by ministers. We report today how a junior minister wants to urge private house-builders once again to start constructing terraced dwellings in the cities. They are likely to demur when it comes to assembling the packages of land fit for inner-urban development, partly because they say the demand is for suburban or country semis and detached properties, with all the consequences for car use and the environment such development entails. This is not to argue that market preferences are everything - the use of land is conditioned by town and country planning policies. It is to say that people choose in the intimacy of their households how and where they live and so choose the environmental consequences.

Signs of change in attitudes to city life abound. We reported on Tuesday how middle-class families were self-consciously seeking to recolonise inner-urban areas (middle-class, because many lower-income people have never had the chance of leaving their inner-city local authority accommodation). City dwellers, new and old, have the keys to a better environment in their hands. To put it bluntly: people must be sufficiently upset by asthma deaths or bad air quality for them to start, locally at first, to agitate for restrictions not on their neighbours' car use but on their own vehicles; and to vote to reconstruct the government of our cities to allow them to tax and spend and rebuild transport systems. This is where Mr Gummer and his central government colleagues come in.

The Government's sincerity can be tested by this question. It is one posed yesterday by its own former transport minister, Steve Norris - who seems to have seen great flashes of light since leaving it. Can you have pollution control or environmental improvement in a city such as London without that city acquiring the capacity to govern itself? The answer is, of course, no. The centre can impose blanket controls: the control of pollutants from domestic coal fires is one of the great post-war success stories. But dealing with the problems created by car use is a local and regional matter because it has to do so closely with where we shop and go to school and our willingness to tolerate restrictions on parking and car use. Solutions will only stick if they are based on local will. But that in turn depends on a revival in the capacity of local government to reflect local choices - something Mr Gummer and his Tory colleagues have been squashing and squeezing for 17 years.