Air pollution causes over 40,000 early deaths and at least £27.5bn in costs every year in the UK, according to the government’s own estimates. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Action to combat the UK’s air pollution crisis has been delayed again after the government rejected a proposal to deliver an effective action plan within eight months.
Environmental lawyers ClientEarth inflicted a humiliating legal defeat on ministers last week – its second in 18 months – when the high court ruled that ministers’ plans to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in many UK cities and towns were unlawfully poor.
The court gave the parties seven days to agree on the next steps, but the government rejected the proposal from ClientEarth. The case will now return to court at a future date when the judge will determine what happens next.
Air pollution causes over 40,000 early deaths and at least £27.5bn in costs every year in the UK, according to the government’s own estimates, and was called a “public health emergency” by MPs in April. An earlier government plan to tackle air pollution was declared illegal in April 2015 and ministers were ordered then to produce a new strategy, which it did in December. But that new plan was also found to be illegal last week.
“We are disappointed that we have been unable so far to agree on the timetable for the new plan, or on the future role for the court in overseeing compliance with the order,” said ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews. “We have made our written submissions and await the court’s decision.”
Aaron Kiely, at Friends of the Earth, said: “How many times must the government fail? And how many deadlines do they need? There is a simple and deadly fact underscoring this case – 40,000 people are dying early from the harmful effects of our illegally dirty air. If this isn’t enough to get the government to do whatever it takes, including really drastic measures to reduce traffic, what is?”
After the most recent court defeat, prime minister Theresa May said: “There is more to do and we will do it.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said on Wednesday: “Our plans have always followed the best available evidence. We have always been clear that we are ready to update them if necessary and we will set out further measures next year. We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”
In last week’s judgment against the government, Mr Justice Garnham said it was “remarkable” that ministers knew they were using over-optimistic pollution modelling, based on flawed lab tests of diesel vehicles rather than actual emissions on the road, but proceeded anyway.
The existing government plan is for clean air zones – in which polluting diesel vehicles are charged to enter city centres – in just six UK cities. A new plan that meets the legal requirement to cut illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the “shortest possible time” is very likely to involve clean air zones in many cities and towns across the country. NO2 has been at illegal levels in 90% of the country’s air quality zones since 2010 and stems largely from diesel vehicles.
ClientEarth also argued in court that an effective plan would require other measures including a scrappage scheme for older diesel vehicles, retrofits of HGVs and more funding for public transport and cycling and walking schemes.
Documents revealed during last week’s high court case showed the Treasury had blocked initial government plans to charge polluting diesel vehicles for entering 16 towns and cities blighted by air pollution, due to concern about the political impact of angering motorists.
Both the environment and transport departments also recommended changes to vehicle excise duty rates to encourage the purchase of low-pollution vehicles. But the Treasury also rejected that idea, along with a scrappage scheme for older diesels.
ClientEarth is running a billboard campaign across London from Thursday, carrying the message: “Welcome to London – the UK’s most polluted city”. A similar campaign is taking place in Glasgow.
ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: “We need urgent action from governments and politicians across the UK who have failed morally and legally in their duty to protect people’s health.”