Air pollution lawsuit set to go ahead despite delayed Government plan

Lawyers are taking a class action against the government over its repeated failures to clean up illegal levels of air pollution, the Guardian can reveal, as ministers publish a long-awaited plan to reduce diesel emissions.

The unprecedented legal challenge on behalf of asthma sufferers could see ministers paying out significant compensation for allowing the nation’s air to exceed legal limits for so long.

The government is expected to publish its new air quality plan at midday on Friday after key local election results have been announced, with a targeted diesel scrappage scheme to cut down on harmful nitrogen dioxide.

The strategy will outline ways that central government can support local councils to draw up their own plans, with some expected to be asked to consider charging for the use of polluting vehicles.

However, sources said there was no need for all local authorities to use charging and insisted there would be a focus on avoiding anything that might “punish” motorists.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, primarily from diesel traffic, have been at illegal levels in almost 90% of urban areas in the UK since 2010. The government has had a string of humiliating defeats in the courts over its failure to clean up the nation’s air – the latest of which was last week when a high court judge said the continued delays were “a significant threat to public health”. He ordered the publication of the new air quality plan by Tuesday.

Nitrogen dioxide causes 23,500 of the 40,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution each year, according to the government’s own data. In April last year MPs said air pollution was a public health emergency.

One move will be to support councils in retro-fitting old buses, which are highly polluting. There will also be a focus on the way that traffic lights can be used to reduce emissions around particular junctions.

The Guardian understands that the document will probably name about two dozen locations around the country where “active intervention” is required in order to tackle air pollution problems,.
The new list will include Manchester and some unexpected places such as Doncaster, Southend and even the New Forest. Sources said the areas had not been added because of widespread problems but because of localised issues, which are limited to a single junction in some cases.

Theresa May said last month that she was “very conscious” that motorists had been encouraged to purchase diesel vehicles when worries were centred on carbon emissions. Some of the biggest issues are in London where the mayor, Sadiq Khan, will be taking action.

The legal challenge being brought on behalf of asthma sufferers could see ministers paying out significant compensation for allowing the air pollution to exceed legal limits for so long.

Frances Lawson, the barrister who is leading the class action, said: “We are looking to bring a state liability claim against the UK government on the basis that it is in breach of an EU directive and that people have suffered as a result of that breach.

“The fact that the UK is in breach of the air quality directive is well established. We believe we can show that people in polluted areas like London are suffering from the symptoms of asthma in part because of excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air they are forced to breathe.

“The public has had seven years of excuses from government while the medical evidence about the health impacts of air pollution strengthens all the time. The government has not addressed this issue with the requisite urgency and people are suffering as a result.”

Dr Claire Holman, an expert in air pollution, who has produced a report to support the class action, said: “I believe there is good, strong evidence that exposure to nitrogen dioxide, both in the long and short term, causes adverse health impacts, particularly on children.

“The evidence is strong that nitrogen dioxide pollution causes asthma as well as exacerbating the symptoms where asthma is already present.”

The Guardian and Greenpeace revealed last month that more than 2,000 schools and nurseries across the country were within 150 metres of a road where nitrogen dioxide levels exceeded the legal limit of 40 µg/m3.

Chris Griffiths, professor of primary care and public health at Bart’s and the London School of Medicine, said the research on the impact of exposure to traffic fumes was pretty consistent, including include reduced lung growth in children, long-term ill health and premature death.

In 2015, the supreme court told ministers it must act to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in the “shortest possible time” after the environmental group ClientEarth took the government to court.

ClientEarth took the government back to court last year and a judge ruled that its plans to create five clean air zones in cities across the country were so bad they were illegal.

He gave the government until 24 April this year to come up with a new plan, but last week ministers attempted to delay publication of the policy once more until after the general election on 8 June.

Ministers have not denied a leak of the new draft policy which suggested they would introduce a targeted diesel scrappage system. But the plans do not appear to include mandating local authorities to impose pollution taxes on drivers of dirty vehicles – something which may not satisfy the high court.

Sandra Laville and Anushka Asthana

This article first appeared as an exclusive on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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