Environmental lawyers ClientEarth had argued that ministers’ draft proposals to improve air quality – which contributes to tens of thousands of deaths each year – were unlawful.

But at the high court in London on Wednesday Mr Justice Garnham dismissed the claim and instructed ministers to publish their full proposals by the end of July.

He said any perceived failings in the plan did not make it unlawful as it was a draft and may change.

“Voicing opposition to proposals is what consultations are all about,” he added.

ClientEarth has already inflicted two defeats on the government over ministers’ previous plans to improve air quality which the courts ruled were so poor as to be unlawful. 

The government’s latest proposals were published on 5 May and were widely condemned, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, calling them “woefully inadequate”.

ClientEarth’s lawyers argued in court that the government’s own research proves that the most effective way to reduce toxic air is by discouraging polluting vehicles from entering cities and towns through clean air zones. However, they argued the consultation published by the ministers in May states that charging zones should only be the option of last resort, after all other measures such as removing speed bumps and encouraging cycling have been tried.

“The draft AQP (air quality plan) is unlawful,” Natalie Lieven, QC told the high court. “It is incapable therefore of meeting the terms of your order.”

ClientEarth also argued the plan was also unlawful because it only provided “a plan for a plan” rather than “concrete actions” to tackle toxic air in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This was dismissed by lawyers for the government who said regional authorities were fully engaged in the consultation process.

The scale of the air pollution crisis was revealed in a joint Guardian-Greenpeace investigation earlier this year showing hundreds of thousands of children were being educated within 150 metres of a road where levels of nitrogen dioxide from diesel traffic breached legal limits.

Figures obtained by Labour showed that more than 38 million people, representing 59.3% of the UK population, were living in areas where levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution were above legal limits.

Research consistently shows that exposure to traffic fumes is harmful to children and adults. Children are more vulnerable because their lungs are still developingand exposure to nitrogen dioxide reduces lung growth, causes long-term ill health and can result in premature death.

Conservative ministers are reluctant to implement charges on drivers who were given tax breaks to buy diesel cars, which have lower carbon dioxide emissions.

But the increasing pressure on the government to cut the NO2 emissions from diesel vehicles has been accompanied by a sharp decline in UK diesel car sales. June’s figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders(SMMT) on Wednesday show a 15% drop compared to June 2016. This follows a drop of 20% year-on-year in May.

The market share for diesel cars in the first half of 2017 was 44%, compared to 48% the year before. But sales of electric and hybrid cars jumped by 30% in June, giving them a market share of 4.4%.

“More long term incentives are required if this new generation of vehicles is to be a more common sight on British roads,” said Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive.

Matthew Taylor

This article first appeared on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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