Leader comment: Diesel owners should not face punishment

It is to be hoped that the introduction of low emission zones in Scotland's cities is an effective method of curbing pollution, because survey after survey has shown us that certain areas are a health hazard for pedestrians, and of course for those who live in the area.

Under the last Labour government, motorists were given tax breaks to encourage them to switch to diesel engines, which were believed to produce less pollution than petrol engines.

Attempts have been made to address the pollution levels by altering traffic flow, but this is not always possible or effective. A complete ban on vehicles can be attempted, but this only displaces the problem to the next street.

The Scottish Government’s latest proposal, which would see certain vehicles banned from areas but “cleaner” vehicles permitted access, has the potential to make a significant difference without creating gigantic pedestrain precincts.

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A low emission zone would offer motorists the encouragement they need to “go green” if they want to retain the ability to drive in certain areas, by choosing a more environmentally friendly model when replacing their existing car.

Presumably, future studies would then show that low emission zones are working, and improving the quality of air and the health of those who were previously exposed to dangerous exhaust fumes. So far, so good. Where this scheme requires rethinking, however, is in its treatment of the owners of diesel cars. It is estimated that three-quarters of diesel owners would be banned from low emission zones, which would only allow access to Euro 6 diesel engines, introduced just three years ago.

In contrast to the current demonisation of diesel drivers, the last Labour government actively encouraged the uptake of diesel engines, with tax breaks, because diesel was believed to be less polluting than a petrol engine. It is only two years ago that evidence came to the fore that diesel engines are as harmful as we now understand.

It is unfair to punish the public after misleading motorists in the first place, and it is unreasonable to expect those who are now caught with polluting vehicles to be able to switch to a cleaner version in such a short timescale, with Scotland’s first low emission zone to come into effect by the end of next year.

Those now caught in the trap need assistance, not punishment, and restrictions should be phased in at a more gradual rate which will not present serious financial disadvantage to those who purchased their diesel cars in good faith and in innocence.