Leading Article: Slamming on the brakes

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The Independent Online
The report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is a remarkable document. It goes as far in its recommendations as the most radical environmentalist groups have done. But it does so with a wealth of research and academic weight that could radically shift the terms of the debate.

Public opinion is changing and is ready to entertain what would once have been heretical ideas about restricting the place of the motor car in modern society. It might even wear the Commission's most dramatic recommendation, for a doubling of the price of petrol by the year 2005, which could be achieved without annual increases exceeding single figures. The car, for long seen by many as the single most liberating force in post-war society, now arouses very mixed feelings. Its contribution to pollution and related health hazards is acknowledged. It is increasingly associated not with joyous excursions, but with traffic jams and long delays.

Government policy may have lagged behind public opinion, but it, too, has changed significantly during the past six years. In a landmark speech in 1988, Margaret Thatcher identified global warming as a serious issue. In 1992 John Major attended the Earth Summit in Rio as Prime Minister, which his Government followed up earlier this year with a series of documents setting out a policy for sustainable development. Most significantly, it belatedly broke with traditional Tory worship of roads and the private car by accepting that road- building could not keep up with the growth of car-use and traffic. Norman Lamont's last Budget announced that the tax on fuel would be increased annually above the level of inflation - which was done in Kenneth Clarke's first Budget. There is no question, therefore, of the Government not accepting the desirability of the broad goals outlined by the Commission. But it will question both the assumptions and the economic calculations behind many of the means that the commission proposes. It makes some attempt to pre-empt government objections based on extra costs to industry, the fuelling of inflation and cost to jobs by pointing to the potential extra revenue from increased petrol taxes. This would, it believes, more than cover the increased investment in public and alternative forms of transport for which it calls.

It also tackles the question of social equity. It concedes that lower- income car users and rural dwellers would be hit by higher fuel prices. But it rightly argues that those without cars or access to them would benefit most from improved public transport.

A question mark must remain over the willingness in practice of large groups of car users to switch to public transport, even if train and bus services were more widely available and efficient. The terms of the debate may have shifted, but that does not mean private habits are about to change.

Dependence on and affection for the car are deeply rooted. Hearts and minds will only change after a massive and passionate debate. The Commission's report is a powerful opening salvo.