The Government has been ordered to publish its final Air Quality Plan by the end of July, with a draft plan ordered for May 9 – less than one week after the local elections on May 4. Ministers had been given up to 24 April to produce an Air Quality Plan, but applied to delay the publication until the general election was settled.

However, Thursday’s (27 April) ruling from the High Court found that air pollution’s impact on public health made it an “exceptional circumstance”, meaning that purdah guidance in the build-up to the election could be ignored.

Mr Justice Garnham said: “These steps are necessary in order to safeguard public health. The continued failure of the government to comply with directives and regulations constitutes a significant threat to public health.”

Judge Garnham rejected a Government appeal to withhold publication of the draft plans, noting the need to protect public health. Nearly 40,000 deaths in the UK each year are linked with air pollution.

Secretary of state, Andrea Leadsom, must now work with her department to publish the draft, expected to include clean-air zone measures and vehicle charges for emission levels, in two weeks’ time.

If the Government wishes to challenge the decision, it would have to go directly to the Appeal Court due to the ruling from Judge Garnham.

Dramatic defeat

Environmental law firm ClientEarth commenced the legal battle with the UK Government last November, challenging them over breaches to European Union (EU) air pollution laws and domestic regulation. It took just five days for parts of London to breach annual limits in 2017.

At the time, Judge Garnham agreed with ClientEarth that policymakers had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law “as soon as possible”. It was a damning indictment of Defra’s “woeful approach” to reduce air pollution levels – which have consistently broken EU legal limits since 2010.

Commenting on Thursday’s result, ClientEarth’s chief executive James Thornton said: “We are delighted with the ruling. We cannot afford more dither and delay from the government. Rather than appeal this decision, they need to get on and produce their plans to bring down air pollution as soon as possible. The judge agreed with us that this is a matter of public health, not politics.”

Earlier this month, Friends of the Earth urged the Government to commit to a variety of clean air measures ahead of its expected, but ultimately delayed, strategy. The campaign group called on ministers to plan to end illegal pollution levels by 2018, introduce a diesel scrappage scheme, add higher tax brackets to deter diesel use and invest in low-carbon transport such as electric vehicles and cycling.

Commenting on the ruling, Friends of the Earth’s air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said: “The High Court’s welcome decision today to insist the government publishes its draft Air Quality Plan after the local elections means that protecting the nation’s health has rightly been placed above political process. Every delay in action costs lives. This is why it’s great news that the final Air Quality Plan will still be published on time.”

Former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey has also responded to ruling. Davey, who is standing for election for the Liberal Democrats, said: “This is a dramatic defeat for the Conservative government. Ministers have used tax-payer money to try to hide proof of their environmental failures. And they have even failed there, too.
“With scientists showing the health impact of air pollution being far worse than we thought, it is disgraceful for the Conservatives to try to bury the truth from voters.”

Matt Mace

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