We don't have to choke

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THE TRADITIONAL British bank holiday brought showers and cold winds; the essential equipment for a family outing was an umbrella and a raincoat. Now, it brings heat and invisible smog, requiring masks and inhalers. This weekend, millions of people, instead of enjoying the sunshine and the VE Day celebrations, are struggling with streaming eyes, headaches and choking coughs. Many are confined to their homes. There is no escape even for country-dwellers. Summer smogs are caused by ozone which takes time to form and drifts out of towns while doing so. Some of the highest levels of smog last week were in north Yorkshire and the Derbyshire Peak District.

This is largely a man-made disaster and the complacency of ministers and some of their advisers is extraordinary. The causes of pollution - mainly ozone in the summer, mainly nitrogen dioxide in the winter - are complex. But there is little doubt that car exhaust fumes, as well as factories and power stations, play a central role. There is also little doubt that smogs are getting worse. Last July saw the worst summer smogs of the decade; this weekend, we are experiencing the earliest known summer smog.

In 1952, the government waited for 4,000 people to die in a single weekend before it took action against the smogs caused by coal-burning. Deaths from the modern smog may never reach such dramatic levels. But there is growing evidence that yet another form of pollution is already killing 10,000 people a year. The culprits are particulates, tiny particles contained in black smoke nearly half of which comes from road vehicles, especially diesel engines.

So what can be done? Pollution raises one of the oldest conundrums of political philosophy: the conflict between one kind of freedom and another. An individual's freedom to drive a motor car reduces another individual's freedom to breathe clean air. This is why ministers tend to favour requirements for "greener cars" - catalytic converters, for example, and vehicles that burn less fuel to the mile. But, barring some technological miracle, this will not be enough to reduce pollution to safe levels, particularly if traffic continues to grow at anything like its present rate. Ministers also favour regulation by price - they have agreed, for example, that petrol prices should rise by 5 per cent a year. But the truth is that the advantage and convenience to an individual of using a car, rather than braving our deteriorating public transport system, is now so great that even a doubling of petrol prices may not have sufficient impact. Thoughtless planning over the past 20 years has made many essential public services, such as schools, hospitals and supermarkets, almost inaccessible to their customers except by car.

Sooner or later, the Government must have the courage to impose direct controls on traffic: cutting motorway speed limits when ozone levels are high, for example, or allowing local councils to ban cars from city centres as an emergency measure. Athens and Mexico City, admittedly with far worse problems than London, already restrict cars and industry during bad episodes of pollution. Last summer, a German town was closed for four days to all vehicles except those fitted with catalytic converters and those with low-emission diesel engines. The use of public transport increased by 50 per cent; pollution dropped by 40 per cent or more. Singapore, a country frequently held up for admiration by Tory MPs, has probably the toughest regulations in the world. People cannot drive into the city at morning peak periods without a special licence. Only a restricted number of new cars can be registered each month, and the rights to these are auctioned.

Britain need not and should not go as far as that. But the Government should certainly take road pricing more seriously. The Prime Minister has remarked that he did not expect people to dance in the streets at the prospect. Most people would settle for being able to breathe easily in the streets. Since ministers are apt to like the grand gesture, they should announce that Britain's skies will be clear by 2000. A summer bank holiday on which parents did not have to worry about their children choking from asthma would not be a bad way to mark the Millennium.