Government loses second legal battle over air pollution

2nd November 2016

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Business & Industry ,
  • Public sector ,
  • Central government ,
  • Transport ,
  • Politics & Economics


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.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

IEMA reviews political party manifestos

Ahead of the UK general election next month, IEMA has analysed the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green Party manifestos in relation to the sustainability agenda.

19th June 2024

Read more

Disinformation about the impossibility of averting the climate crisis is part of an alarming turn in denialist tactics, writes David Burrows

6th June 2024

Read more

Rivers and waterways across England and Wales are increasingly polluted by sewage spills. What is causing the crisis and what is being done to tackle it? Huw Morris reports

31st May 2024

Read more

IEMA submits response to the Future Homes Standard consultation

31st May 2024

Read more

In January, the Welsh government consulted on a proposed white paper, 'Securing a Sustainable Future: Environmental Principles, Governance and Biodiversity Targets for a Greener Wales'.

31st May 2024

Read more

Gillian Gibson calls for urgent action to avoid environmental tipping points

20th May 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close