After hordes of headlines suggesting owners of diesel cars were about to be clobbered with huge pollution charges, there were fears that the surge in demand for diesel would suddenly shudder into reverse, but new proposals from the government have eased some of the anxiety at least temporarily.

The government was forced to come up with its long-awaited strategy for tackling air pollution because levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulates in many UK towns and cities regularly exceed legal limits, and emissions from traffic and particularly diesel vehicles have been identified as one of the main causes.

The new proposals are now available for a consultation, which runs until June 15, and one of the main features is an expectation that local authorities will introduce clean air zones. The document says there will be two types of clean air zones: non- charging clean air zones, where there will be action to improve air quality; and charging clean air zones, where low-emission vehicles will be encouraged and more polluting ones will be penalised by charges to enter. The document adds that local authorities already have the power to set up charging clear air zones.

But, when it comes to the controversial subject of how much this will cost drivers, the government has dodged the issue. In the consultation document, Annex B on charge levels contains just one sentence: "This annex will be published separately with charge levels at a later date."

However, the existing legislation specifies that charges should not be viewed as a revenue-raising measure, and any excess will be reinvested in local transport policies. Another cost issue that has been dodged is tax treatment for diesel, which it says will be addressed in the autumn.

The relief for advocates of diesel vehicles is that the document recognises that newer engines produce far less emissions than older ones. In its definition of lower emission vehicles it includes the latest Euro 6 diesel engines, as well as Euro 4 petrol engines.

Local authorities introducing clean air zones will also be expected to provide infrastructure to promote use of ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs), providing charging points for electric vehicles and hydrogen refuelling stations. Paragraph 77 also states that local authorities should evaluate alternative fuels, such as LPG and CNG, to see whether they would deliver air quality benefits.

Reacting to the consultation document, RAC chief engineer David Bizley said: "We welcome many of the proposals which have been included in the air quality strategy namely encouraging local authorities to improve traffic flow, giving consideration to replacing speed humps with other means to safely slow vehicles down, a very clear focus on those most polluting vehicles such as buses and taxis, and encouraging the cutting of unnecessary engine idling.

"However, it is deeply worrying that local authorities have an option of introducing charging clean air zones, which would affect owners of relatively new diesel and some petrol vehicles. This potentially could impact millions of motorists and while the government has said it wants to discourage authorities from going down this route, the strategy does not give a clear steer on how and when local authorities should implement which type of clean air zone.

"We believe that efforts should be focused on tackling those oldest vehicles that do the highest number of miles in affected areas, and that charges to owners of all but the newest diesel cars should be an absolute last resort. There is also no guidance yet published on what charges to motorists might be which will undoubtedly make many motorists anxious of what may be in store. The government has ruled out a large-scale scrappage scheme on value-for-money grounds, but has indicated it is still open to a more targeted scheme a move which we cautiously welcome."

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), said: "SMMT welcomes the publication of government’s proposals for improving air quality across the UK, which clearly states that the new Euro 6 diesels, which have been on sale for the past two years, will not face any penalty charges anywhere in the UK.

"Furthermore, the government is keen that local authorities avoid charging consumers and businesses for driving their vehicles if other more effective policies can be found. Industry is committed to improving air quality across our towns and cities and has spent billions developing new low emission cars, vans, trucks and buses and getting these new cleaner vehicles onto our roads quickly is part of the solution."

In announcing the timetable for its consultation, the government said the final plan would be published by July 31, so final decisions will be taken by the incoming government, following June’s General Election.

Car makers are fighting back

Jaguar Land Rover is aiming to combat the demonisation of diesel by introducing "impartial and factual guidance" for retailers and customers to help them make an informed decision on whether they should buy a petrol or diesel.
Jeremy Hicks, Jaguar Land Rover UK managing director, said: "Recent publicity around the diesel debate has caused significant confusion for customers. We are seeing more and more people ask us whether they should be buying a petrol or a diesel. We have a range of both efficient, clean petrol and diesel options so we are providing a simple unbiased guide for customers to make an informed choice."
Responding to the consultation on improving air quality, he added: "We welcome the consultation recognising the fundamental difference between older vehicles which contribute to air pollution and clean, new diesels which are part of the air-quality solution.
"Our latest Euro 6 diesel engines are among the cleanest in the world. Highly efficient diesel particulate filters now capture 99.9% of all particles.
"Pollutant emission levels for new diesels are comparable to the equivalent petrol engines, but with CO2 emissions that are around 20% lower. Our customers demand greater fuel economy, and new diesels deliver that. Older car engines are just one potential source of urban air pollutants, and we’d be keen to see the strategy tackling air quality across a range of pollution sources."