The government is being forced to deliver an effective plan to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis within eight months, after a high court judge rejected a longer timetable as “far too leisurely”.
Environmental lawyers ClientEarth inflicted a humiliating legal defeat on ministers earlier in November – its second in 18 months – when the high court ruled that ministers’ plans to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in many UK cities and towns were so poor they were unlawful.
The government subsequently refused to agree to the eight-month timetable proposed by ClientEarth for a new plan, saying it needed until September next year.
But on Monday, (21st November) Mr Justice Garnham ordered the government to produce a draft plan by 24 April 2017 and a final one by 31 July 2017.
An earlier government plan to tackle air pollution was declared illegal in April 2015 and ministers were ordered to produce a new strategy, which it did in December 2015. But that plan was also found not to meet the law’s requirement of cutting nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution to legal levels in the “shortest possible time”.
James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, said: “It is very clear that the government must now act swiftly and decisively to protect British people from toxic and illegal air pollution. The government has said throughout this process that it takes air pollution seriously. Until now, it’s actions have not lived up to this claim. Now is the time for the government to prove that it truly cares about people’s health.”
After the most recent court defeat, prime minister Theresa May said: “There is more to do and we will do it.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said on Monday: “We are determined to cut harmful emissions. Our plans have always followed the best available evidence and we have always been clear that we are ready to update them if necessary. We can now confirm a timetable for updating our plans next year and further improving the nation’s air quality.”
The judge also ordered the government to publish the data on which it will base its new plan.
Earlier in November he said it was “remarkable” that ministers knew they were using over-optimistic pollution modelling, based on flawed lab tests of diesel vehicles rather than actual emissions on the road, but proceeded anyway.
The existing government plan is for just six clean air zones (CAZs) – Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and London – where some polluting diesel vehicles are charged to enter city centres.
Andrews added: “If the government are at all serious about complying with the court order, a national network of CAZs must be part of their plans, which means including the dirtiest diesel cars and creating far more than the current six.”
NO2 has been at illegal levels in 90% of the country’s air quality zones since 2010 and stems largely from diesel vehicles.
ClientEarth also argued in court that an effective plan would require other measures including a scrappage scheme for older diesel vehicles, retrofits of HGVs and more funding for public transport and cycling and walking schemes.
Documents revealed during the recent high court case showed the Treasury had blocked initial government plans for 16 CAZs in towns and cities blighted by air pollution, due to concern about the political impact of angering motorists.
Both the environment and transport departments also recommended changes to vehicle excise duty rates to encourage the purchase of low-pollution vehicles. But the Treasury also rejected that idea, along with a scrappage scheme for older diesels.