ClientEarth won a High Court battle a year ago which forced the Government to publish new plans to tackle the issue. But the law group claims that the proposals did not go far enough to bring air pollution to within legal limits as soon as possible.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: “The UK Government’s stubborn failure to tackle illegal and harmful levels of pollution in this country means that we have no choice but to take legal action. We need clarity from the Government and for that we’ve been forced to go back to court.”

The UK has broken legal limits of nitrogen oxide, derived mainly from diesel vehicles, since EU laws were introduced in 2010. Last month, evidence found that the vast majority of highly-populated British towns and cities are in breach of World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended guidelines for air quality.

‘Come clean’

Ministers recently unveiled a new plan, set to come into force next 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.

Both Leicester and Oxford City Councils have allegedly expressed doubts about the plan to ministers. Concerns exist that the Government has seriously underestimated the issue in their respective cities, ClientEarth understands, with further anxieties that access to support has been denied to them.

To avoid further delay, ClientEarth is calling for the current plan to be bolstered rather than overturned.

“This is a national problem that requires a national solution,” Thornton added. “The Government’s own evidence shows that we need a national network of charging clean air zones, which will keep the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted areas of our towns and cities, so why aren’t drivers being prepared for it?

“It’s time ministers came clean about the size of the problem and the difficult decisions needed to solve it.”

Thornton said that this month’s Autumn Budget would be a “litmus test” of the Government’s willingness to tackle the issue head on, calling for fiscal policies to drive a shift away from diesel vehicles.

This should be supported by attempts from the automotive industry to become part of the solution, he said. Thornton cited the German car industry’s recent receipt of £250m to the country’s Government to help cities reduce pollution.

George Ogleby

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