Treasury blocked air quality plans in favour of ‘absolute minimum’ measures

The Treasury blocked plans to bring UK air pollution within legal limits as part of an "entire approach driven by cost", the High Court heard yesterday (18 October) in a retrial over illegal air levels.

In the first of a two-day Judicial Review between the Government and environmental lawyers ClientEarth, the latter accused George Osborne of rejecting Defra’s plans to tackle the UK’s toxic air crisis because they were deemed of “high cost to HMG at a time of significant affordability constraints” and above what the Government considered the “absolute minimum” it could get away with.

The Government resumed its longstanding dispute with ClientEarth to address the UK’s “woeful” approach to tackling air pollution, which allegedly leads to 40,000 early deaths each year in the UK, and saw London take just one week to breach annual pollution limits in 2016.

Court documents revealed that original Defra plans to establish 16 Clean Air Zones (CAZs) outside of London, which would concentrate on the dirtier diesel vehicles, were knocked back by the Treasury. The Government eventually resolved to create five CAZs – Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton – but the Court heard of vetoed proposals to introduce fiscal reforms that would discourage the use of diesel in these zones.

Nathalie Lieven QC said: “What is absolutely clear is that the cost of the measures and the requirement to keep the costs to a minimum was, in the end, the factor that led to six mandatory CAZs.

“All the evidence shows that, on the basis of the modelling carried out, six mandatory zones were not going to achieve compliance.”

Lack of evidence

ClientEarth’s barrister also told the court that the Government chose an arbitrary date of 2020 to comply with tough pollution laws because it was thought that would be the earliest it would be fined by the European Commission (EC).

The Supreme Court ordered the Government to draw up a new air quality plan in April last year but ClientEarth argues that it was woefully inadequate and wants the High Court to order new measures to deal with pollution.

Lieven told the High Court the obvious year to choose for “as soon as possible” compliance would have been 2018 or 2019. She also said that modelling undertaken by Defra didn’t even consider earlier dates. “There is simply no evidence to support the proposition that no more could have been done,” she said.

High-profile support

The ClientEarth case has received the backing of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who last week spoke exclusively to edie to remind readers of the importance of the environmental lawyers’ trial in holding the Government to account over poor national air quality levels.

The Government’s return to court over illegal air quality levels arrives as new analysis from think-tank Sandbag warned that up to £800m could be spent in the UK to subsidise a plethora of new diesel generators during the next 15 years.

The calls to scrap diesel came on the same day that the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change – which represents 600,000 doctors, nurses and allied health professionals – called on the Government to protect the health of the public by implementing its intended phase-out of coal-powered plants.

ClientEarth’s court hearing is due to conclude today when Defra will present their defence.    

Sadiq Khan and ClientEarth on the Sustainable Business Covered podcast

Both Sadiq Khan and ClientEarth’s chief executive James Thornton will feature in this week’s Sustainable Business Covered podcast episode which focuses on the theme of green policy. You can listen to the episode on iTunes or download it directly on the when the episode goes live tomorrow morning.

George Ogleby

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