UK Government faces second court battle over air pollution plans

The UK government is to be sued in the high court over its air pollution plans, just a year after losing at the supreme court and being ordered to fulfil its legal duty to cut pollution rapidly.

A request for a new judicial review by environmental lawyers at ClientEarth was granted by a judge on Thursday.

ClientEarth argues the government is in breach of its legal duty to produce new air quality plans to cut pollution to legal levels in the “shortest possible time”, despite being ordered to do so by the supreme court in 2015. The development puts the spotlight on the environment secretary, Liz Truss, who is named as the defendant in the new case.

Air pollution was called a “public health emergency” by MPs on Wednesday, and causes 40,000-50,000 early deaths every year. A report from two Royal Colleges of medicine estimated the cost of the damage at £20bn a year.

A deadline for the UK to meet EU air quality rules was missed in 2010 but the plan put forward by the government after losing at the supreme court would not cut pollution to legal levels until 2025 in some cities.

“The government’s new plans to tackle air pollution are woefully inadequate and won’t achieve legal limits for years to come,” said ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews. “The longer they are allowed to dither and delay, the more people will suffer from serious illness or an early death.”

“Today’s decision means we will be returning to court to demand that ministers respect our right to breathe clean air,” Andrews said. “The health evidence is mounting and, as we saw yesterday, MPs from across the political spectrum agree with us that the government is not doing enough.”

Mary Creagh MP, chair of the environmental audit committee, which is currently investigating air pollution, said: “The government has dragged its feet on tackling air pollution and that is simply not good enough. It is about time the government set out a clear, comprehensive plan to go much further, much faster.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 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. We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”

The MPs’ report said the government needed to do much more, including introducing a scrappage scheme for old, dirty diesel vehicles, giving dozens of cities stronger powers to deter polluting vehicles with charging schemes and acting to cut pollution from farms.

“There is clear consensus that the government’s plans are wholly inadequate to address this public health crisis,” said Kerry McCarthy, Labour’s shadow environment secretary. “It should not take legal action to force the environment secretary to take urgent action and help save lives.”

Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “This is the second time the government has been taken to court over air pollution. They must now take immediate action to prevent people being needlessly killed by the air they breathe. Air pollution affects everyone [and] it has greatest impact on the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, and those with lung conditions.”

The government has been accused of trying to bury the news of its air pollution plans. The government released a draft of the plan required by the supreme court on the Saturday in September on which Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party. The final plan was published on “take out the trash day” in December, along with dozens of other ministerial statements and many hundreds of government documents.

Damian Carrington

This article first appeared on the Guardian

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