ClientEarth wins third legal battle against Government’s ‘shambolic’ air quality policies

The High Court has once again ruled that the UK Government's efforts to combat toxic air pollution are unlawful, marking the third time that environmental law firm ClientEarth have won a court case against ministers.

Justice Garnham ruled today (21 February) that the UK Government’s air quality efforts were illegal, as they required no action from the 45 local councils where air quality is currently below European Union (EU) standards.

ClientEarth won a High Court battle a year ago which forced the Government to publish new plans to tackle the issue. The law group then claimed the proposals did not go far enough to bring air pollution to within legal limits as soon as possible. As part of the new ruling, ClientEarth need not apply for permission to bring judicial review, meaning they can immediately bring ministers back to court over any future plans deemed unlawful.

Mr Justice Garnham said: “The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough…and it seems court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved.”

Exceptional case

Ministers unveiled a new plan last year which proposes a £3bn programme to clean up dirty air around UK roads. As part of the strategy, the Government has committed to the phase-out of new car sales for petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040.

But the plan fails to deliver on previous commitments to introduce clean air zones in five cities by 2020, says ClientEarth. Neither does it require any action in 40 English local authorities, despite them breaching EU air quality limits.

Justice Garnham described the fact that ClientEarth can bring the UK Government back to court immediately as “wholly exceptional”, while the environmental law firm noted the ruling as legal history.

“The Judge has effectively allowed us to bring this matter straight back to court without delay if the government continues to fall short of its duties,” ClientEarth’s lawyer Anna Heslop said.

“We are extremely grateful for this because it means we will be able to monitor the government’s actions even more effectively and hold them to account.”

Air pollution is thought to be a contributing factor to 40,000 early deaths every year. Evidence suggests that the vast majority of highly-populated British towns and cities are in breach of World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended guidelines for air quality.

Commenting on the announcement, the Environmental Audit Committee’s chair Mary Creagh added: “Ministers’ shambolic attempts to tackle this means this is the third time the courts have ordered the Government to come up with a new plan. The Government must now use every tool in the box to clean up our choking cities.”

Matt Mace

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