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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 12:41 GMT
Reaching the parts other parties neglect
Electric train PA
The Lib Dems want "stronger public control" of railways
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

If this election proves a two-horse race, then - forgive a mixed metaphor - the environment will prove the dog that didn't bark.

Both Labour and the Conservatives made green noises in the past. Neither is making many now.

Yet research last year suggested the environment was the fifth most important topic for those polled.

So the Liberal Democrats may have their finger on the public pulse.

Their wish list is impressive, and sometimes it does read more as aspiration than hard-nosed intention.

Practical

No-one could criticise increasing environmental awareness among young people - but probably few would have a very clear idea about how to achieve it.

And wanting the European Union to develop greater eco-credentials will be a vote-winner, if it can be done at all.

Charles Kennedy PA
Charles Kennedy - joined-up green policies?
But some of the manifesto commitments are practical, in the sense that they could certainly be achieved if the money is there to pay for them.

Extending the winter fuel allowance to the severely disabled is an obvious example, and not a costly one.

There are proposals for better transport provision which would also be fairly simple to implement - free travel off-peak for pensioners and the disabled, for instance, and transport discounts for students under 19 years old.

Parking charges

And the Lib Dems show themselves willing to take on the roads lobby with their proposals for cutting road-building plans and imposing charges for workplace parking and out-of-town shopping centres.

They will strike a popular note with their promise to "establish stronger public control" over the railways.

There is more unexceptional common sense on agriculture and rural affairs, the sorts of commitments urged by environmental campaigners for years.

Incentives

These include a promise to "boost local economies by protecting local services and promoting local innovation", and providing incentives for developers to build on brownfield sites.

A standing jibe levelled at the Liberal Democrats is that they can afford radical policies because they will never face the responsibility of having to implement them.

That leaves some opponents happy to dismiss the manifesto as irrelevant. But not everyone agrees.

Professor Robert Worcester, the chairman of Mori (Market and Opinion Research International), is active in WWF and several other environment charities.

Resonant

He told BBC News Online: "During an election, the focus is on the Lib Dems almost as much as on the government and the opposition.

"Issues, ideas, and policy pronouncements do have resonance.

"And often people don't remember who said something, just that it was said."

Cars in car-park BBC
Car-parking would be targeted
Rebecca Willis is director of the Green Alliance, which aims to "promote sustainable development by ensuring that the environment is at the heart of decision-making".

She told BBC News Online: "One thing that really leaps out of the manifesto is the Lib Dems' attempt to integrate the environment across all policy areas instead of 'ghettoising' it.

"We've pressed all the parties on that, and we welcome it.

Unplayed ace

"I think what the party says does matter. I hope this manifesto will help to create political competition.

"The Lib Dems are making a really useful input by pushing their own ideas and challenging the other parties.

"The important thing now is how much air time they get."

Friends of the Earth "congratulated the Liberal Democrats for putting the environment at the heart of their election manifesto".

Charles Secrett, director of FoE, said: "The environment is the ace in the Lib Dem pack, but they haven't played it yet."

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