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Air pollution curb plan ordered

Published 29/04/2015

Environmental campaigners asked the Supreme Court to order the Government to produce a new plan for reducing levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air
Environmental campaigners asked the Supreme Court to order the Government to produce a new plan for reducing levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air

A decision by the UK's highest court to set a deadline for the Government to produce new plans for reducing air pollution levels has been hailed as "historic" by campaigners.

Supreme Court justices in London ordered that "air quality plans" to comply with European Union (EU) law on limits for nitrogen dioxide in the air must be submitted to the European Commission "no later" than December 31.

The ruling today was the culmination of a five-year legal battle by environmental group ClientEarth over the UK's "admitted and continuing" failure to secure compliance in certain zones with limits set under the Air Quality Directive "for the protection of human health".

Announcing the unanimous decision of a panel of five judges, headed by the court's president Lord Neuberger, Lord Carnwath said: "The new government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue."

The "only realistic way to achieve this is a mandatory order", he said, requiring new plans to be prepared "within a defined timetable".

After the ruling, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: "Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgment recognises, work is already under way on revised plans - since February 2014 - to meet EU targets on NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) as soon as possible.

"It has always been the Government's position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits."

The Government says it is working with the European Commission as well as with local authorities "to ensure compliance with the limit values in the shortest possible time".

Defra points out that average roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide have fallen 15% since 2010, and that both emissions and background concentrations have more than halved in the 20 years from 1992 to 2012.

The UK is compliant with EU legislation for "nearly all air pollutants", but still faces a "significant challenge" meeting nitrogen dioxide limit values.

It says the main reason breaches are so high across Europe is because the Euro emission standards for diesel cars "failed to deliver expected reductions in NO2 in real life situations" - and the UK is "pushing for action to address this as early as possible".

ClientEarth described the ruling as "historic", saying it was "the culmination of a five-year legal battle fought by ClientEarth for the right of British people to breathe clean air".

It said in a statement: "The ruling will save thousands of lives a year by forcing the Government to urgently clean up pollution from diesel vehicles, the main source of the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide found in many of the UK's towns and cities."

ClientEarth said the Supreme Court ruling means "the Government must start work on a comprehensive plan to meet pollution limits as soon as possible. Among the measures that it must consider are low emission zones, congestion charging and other economic incentives".

It is calling for action to clean up the "worst polluting diesel vehicles, including through a national network of low-emission zones".

ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said: "Air pollution kills tens of thousands of people in this country every year. We brought our case because we have a right to breathe clean air and today the Supreme Court has upheld that right.

"This ruling will benefit everyone's health but particularly children, older people and those with existing health conditions like asthma and heart and lung disease.

"The next government, regardless of the political party or parties which take power, is now legally bound to take urgent action on this public health crisis.

"Before next week's election, all political parties need to make a clear commitment to policies which will deliver clean air and protect our health."

ClientEarth has said that under existing plans, some areas such as London, Birmingham and Leeds would not meet pollution limits until 2030, 20 years after the original deadline of 2010.

It says air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK, more than obesity and alcohol combined.

Explaining why a mandatory order was being made, Lord Carnwath said that "without doubting the good faith of the Secretary of State's intentions, we would in my view be failing in our duty if we simply accepted her assurances without any legal underpinning".

He said: "In normal circumstances, where a responsible authority is in admitted breach of a legal obligation, but is willing to take appropriate steps to comply, the court may think it right to accept a suitable undertaking, rather than impose a mandatory order."

However, counsel for the Environment Secretary "candidly accepts that this course is not open to her, given the restrictions imposed on Government business during the current election period".

He added: "The court can also take notice of the fact that formation of a new Government following the election may take a little time."

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