Government loses second legal battle over air pollution

2nd November 2016


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Author

Peter Longden

The environment department (Defra) should scrap its 2015 air quality plan and urgently draw up a new strategy to bring the UK into compliance with air pollution laws, the High Court has ruled.

The case, bought by lawyers at ClientEarth, concerned the UK’s repeated failure to meet the limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) set by the EU Air Quality Directive. Defra’s data shows that NO2 is responsible for 23,500 deaths a year in the UK.

In his judgement, justice Garnham agreed with ClientEarth that the environment secretary had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law ‘as soon as possible’, as ordered by the Supreme Court after Defra lost a similar case in April 2015.

In December 2015, Defra published an air quality strategy in response to the Supreme Court ruling. The strategy included plans to create clean air zones (CAZs) in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by 2020. The zones would introduce charges for buses, taxis, coaches and lorries that do not meet minimum emissions standards.

However, the High Court said the plan failed to comply with the Supreme Court ruling or relevant EU directives. Defra’s plan to achieve compliance for some cities by 2020, and 2025 for London, had been chosen because that was the date when ministers thought the UK would face fines from the European Commission rather than improving air quality as quickly as possible.

Defra’s original plan for CAZs in more than a dozen cities had been watered down on cost grounds, the judge noted. He also said that ministers were aware that the plans were based on over-optimistic pollution modelling.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: ‘The time for legal action is over. This is an urgent public health crisis over which the prime minister must take personal control.’

A Defra spokesperson said: ‘Our plans have always followed the best available evidence – we have always been clear that we are ready to update them if necessary and have been at the forefront of action in Europe to secure more accurate, real-world emissions testing for diesel cars.

‘While our huge investment in green transport initiatives and plans to introduce CAZs around the country will help tackle this problem, we accept the court’s judgment. We will now carefully consider this ruling, and our next steps, in detail.’

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said that the ruling dealt a blow to the government’s plans to expand Heathrow airport: ‘The government has already illegally delayed meeting EU pollution limits until 2025 [in London], building a third runway would make the situation even worse.’

Meanwhile, think tank IPPR and Greenpeace argue in a new report that diesel vehicles should be phased out in London, where they are responsible for nearly 40% of all NO2 emissions.

IPPR and Greenpeace recommend: introducing a charge on all non-zero emission cars in inner London by 2025, with similar action on buses, vans and lorries; phasing out diesel taxis by 2025; reinvesting the revenues raised from road charges into the public transport network, car sharing, cycling, walking and other sustainable options.

The organisations also want action by central government, including: a new clean air act; a diesel scrappage scheme linked to public transport and car club membership to make the phase-out affordable for poorer drivers and businesses; and reform of road tax so diesel vehicles are not promoted over petrol.

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