Leading Article: Whitehall talks hot air on fumes

It's official: breathing has been bad for you this week, except in Scotland. The Government helpfully warned us that the quality of what's getting into our lungs is "poor". But don't panic. Whitehall reassures us that "no areas are expected to register 'very poor'," which is not exactly reassuring.

Showing all the quick-fire reactions of a sloth, the Government is beginning to realise that a lot of air pollution is due to rising numbers of cars. The Government won't admit it, but there may well turn out to be a link between traffic fumes and the numbers of asthma sufferers.

In January, Messrs Mawhinney and Gummer produced a document promising action to "transform the prospects of getting rid of the discomfort vehicle pollution can cause". You know the kind of thing: Air Quality Management Areas, air quality assessments, local plans, consultation, databases, policy reviews, encouraging private and voluntary effort. Are you breathing more easily already?

The Government will "settle standards" for various nasty chemicals in the air. There will be "base" standards, or general goals we ought to aim for, and "alert thresholds", which will trigger "remedial action". But the paper was strangely coy about what that action would be.

There's nothing wrong with setting targets and leaving it to people to work out how to meet them. However, this only works if we know who is responsible, and if someone waves sticks at them when they fail. Yet when the air in London or Birmingham reaches high-octane standard, the only penalty the Government imposes is to issue a press release, as it did this week, advising motorists to "use cars responsibly".

Here's what the two ministers did not announce: taxing diesel-engined cars and buses more heavily and cutting taxes on newer, cleaner engines. Nor did they offer cash to fund a national programme for new cycle-ways in every city, although these are proven successes in many European cities. Road tax cuts for electric cars didn't make it into the paper, although even Tory Westminster council has experimented with free parking for them. The paper didn't give individuals the right to bring court cases against the owners of heavily polluting vehicles. Somehow road pricing - which has had more trailers than a Disney video - and tradeable pollution rights for factories didn't get into a major policy paper from a government that supposedly looks for market solutions.

Why were these policies so conspicuously absent? After all, many involve tax cuts, which the Government says it wants. Maybe the Government prefers making single high-profile tax cuts - for example, in income tax rates - to more effective ones that make for smaller headlines.

So, until the Government takes the problem seriously, remember to use your car responsibly, in terror that someone with a clipboard in your local Air Quality Management Area may be taking notes on you.