Defra faces legal action over ‘woeful’ air pollution policy

Environmental law firm ClientEarth has sent a final legal warning to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) informing the Department it will commence legal action if drastic improvements aren't made to the UK's 'woeful' approach to tackling air pollution.

A pre-action letter has been sent to Defra today (1 March), demanding that new air quality implementations are drawn up, giving ‘full consideration’ to all clean air measures available to the Government. The letter warns that current plans are ‘defective’ and fail to take into account the variety of pollutant combatants available.

ClientEarth has given Defra 10 days to provide a relevant reply before launching legal proceedings in the High Court.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: “Despite an order from the UK’s highest court, despite tens of thousands of premature deaths in this country every year and despite clear evidence to show that air pollution has a terrible effect on the health of vulnerable groups like children, the Government has consistently ducked its responsibility to ensure our right to clean air.

“We have had to issue this legal warning to the government because of its failure to produce a plan that would bring air pollution down as soon as possible.”

The letter is the latest exchange in a long-standing feud between Defra and ClientEarth. Last year, Defra ministers were ordered to publish a new Air Quality Strategy by the Supreme Court, detailing how the Government would bring pollution levels down by 2025. The resulting ruling paved the way for new Clean Air Zones to be established in all major cities across the country within that timeframe.

Commenting on today’s letter, a Defra spokesperson said: “Our plans clearly set out how we will improve the UK’s air quality through a new programme of Clean Air Zones, which alongside national action and continued investment in clean technologies will create cleaner, healthier air for all.” 

Something in the air

Air quality has been a contentious issue for the Government over the past year, capped off by last week’s revelations that indoor and outdoor air pollution was ‘claiming at least 40,000 UK lives a year’. Another revelation came earlier in the year when it was revealed that London took just one week to breach annual pollution limits.

Ait quality was effectively sidelined from both Defra and DECC’s new five year plans, and last month Defra said it would be halving the amount of money available to local authorities to tackle air pollution.

Bristol is another city that is facing up to worstening air quality. Despite being Europe’s Green Capital for 2015, a City Council report for 2014, released this week, has revealed that 6% of deaths in Bristol occured due to particulate pollution. In a bid tomitigate the issue, Bristol recently made a bold pledge to accelerate its already-ambitious climate targets and pursue complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

Fight or freight

In related air quality news today, the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) and the Clean Air Alliance have developed a new initiative to combate the nation’s worrying air pollution levels. At a Parliamentary reception for the launch of the initiative, more than 200 stakeholders agreed to form a publication outlining the similarities between air pollution and climate change.

The new initiative aims to demonstrate how climate change and air quality are interdependent by highlighting that many climate change policies would be adept at tackling air pollution. It will explore the ‘grey areas’ of the air pollution policy, to see how the issue could be resolved through new frameworks and standards.

With road transport now responsible for around 20% of the UK’s total emissions, Transport for London (TfL) recently introduced a new industry-led programme offering increased availability of low-emission vans and lorries in an effort to reduce the emissions of the capital’s freight and fleet operators.

Matt Mace

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