Government accused of stalling air pollution plans to save money

19th October 2016

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  • Pollution & Waste Management ,
  • Air ,
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  • EU


Ian Grimshaw

The Treasury blocked plans to reduce air pollution to legal limits in the UK because they were above the absolute minimum the government considered it could get away with, the High Court has heard.

Environmental law group ClientEarth has taken the government to the High Court for failing to deal with illegal levels of air pollution in the UK and to request new plans to comply as soon as possible.

The hearing is the second time ClientEarth has brought the case to court. In April 2015, it won a five-year legal battle with the government over illegal levels of air pollution in the UK, when the country’s Supreme Court ruled the government must produce a new air quality plan to cut nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution.

New proposals were announced in December 2015, including creating Clean Air Zones (CAZs) in five cities outside London – Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton. These should come into effect in 2020.

London, which has the highest levels of NO2 in the UK, is already planning to introduce an ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) in 2020.

However, court documents reveal that the environment department (Defra) originally said 16 CAZs were required to ensure compliance with legal limits.

Nathalie Lieven QC for ClientEarth told the court that the Treasury wanted only the ‘minimum’ measures necessary to achieve compliance, and that cost was the overriding factor in decision-making. Lieven based her assessment on evidence that the original CAZ plan drafted by Defra was turned down by the Treasury, which described as ‘high cost to Her Majesty’s Government at a time of significant affordability constraints’.

‘What is absolutely clear is that the cost of the measures and the requirement to keep the costs to a minimum was, in the end, the factor that led to six mandatory CAZs,’ said Lieven. ‘All the evidence shows that, on the basis of the modelling carried out, six mandatory zones were not going to achieve compliance.’

Commenting on yesterday’s court hearing, James Thornton, ClientEarth’s chief executive, said: ‘We offered evidence in court today that the previous chancellor, George Osborne, made decisions about air pollution based on money … to spend as little as possible. That’s not allowed under the law, health comes first and we have 40,000 people a year dying early of air pollution in the UK.’

The government is presenting its evidence to the court today.


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