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Government 'accepts' court ruling on need to quash and improve air quality plan

Published 02/11/2016

Supporters of a new legal challenge against the Government over air pollution levels protest outside the High Court in London on October 18
Supporters of a new legal challenge against the Government over air pollution levels protest outside the High Court in London on October 18

The Government has reacted swiftly after a High Court judge declared its plans for tackling harmful air pollution were inadequate and must be improved.

Prime Minister Theresa May's official spokeswoman told reporters: "We are accepting today's court judgment and will consider now the details and set out next steps in due course."

Mrs May hinted at possible changes minutes earlier when she was asked about the ruling at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons.

"I have been asked about air quality in this chamber previously at PMQs and I have always made clear that we recognise that there is more for the Government to do," the PM told the House.

Mrs May was speaking just hours after Mr Justice Garnham, sitting in London, ruled that the Government's current Air Quality Plan (AQP) was legally flawed and declared that it "must be quashed" and replaced by a modified, improved plan.

The judge said the Environment Secretary "fell into error by adopting too optimistic a model of future emissions" and had also erred "in fixing on a projected compliance date of 2020 (and 2025 for London)".

Campaigners want a national network of clean air zones to be in place by 2018 in cities across the UK.

Mrs May said: "We have been doing a lot in this area. We have been putting extra money into actions that will relieve the issues around air quality.

"But we recognise that Defra now has to look at the judgment that has been made by the courts and we have to look again at the proposals that we will bring forward.

"Nobody in this House doubts the importance of the issue of air quality.

"We have taken action, there's more to do and we will do it."

The judgment was another victory for ClientEarth, which won a landmark Supreme Court ruling in April 2015 over the same issue.

Supreme Court justices declared then that immediate action was needed and set a deadline for the Government to produce new plans to comply with European Union (EU) law on limits for nitrogen dioxide in the air.

ClientEarth returned to court and argued the new AQP was also ''flawed, woefully inadequate - and needs to be drastically improved".

The judge agreed that it could not stand. He ruled that, like its predecessor, the 2015 plan failed to comply with Article 23 of the EU Air Quality Directive and linked air quality standard regulations.

He ruled: "The proper construction of Article 23 means that the Secretary of State must aim to achieve compliance by the soonest date possible, that she must choose a route to that objective which reduces exposure as quickly as possible, and that she must take steps which mean meeting the value limits is not just possible, but likely."

Lawyer Alan Andrews, of ClientEarth, welcomed the court's ruling and said: "We hope the new Government will finally get on with preparing a credible plan to resolve this issue once and for all.

"We look forward to working with Defra ministers on developing a new plan which makes a genuine attempt to achieve legal limits throughout the UK as soon as possible.

"We need a national network of clean air zones to be in place by 2018 in cities across the UK, not just in a handful of cities."

It is estimated that 9,400 deaths occur each year in London due to illnesses caused by long-term exposure to air pollution, while 448 schools in London are in areas exceeding legal air quality levels.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the Scottish and Welsh ministers, and the Transport Secretary were all "interested parties" in the case.

Mr Khan said: "Today's High Court ruling brings sharply into focus the scale of the country's air pollution crisis and lays the blame at the door of the Government for its complacency in failing to tackle the problem quickly and credibly.

"In so doing they have let down millions of people the length and breadth of the country.

"This must now act as a real wake-up call to Government to finally get to grips with this national health emergency that is causing 9,400 deaths every year just in London alone."

Limits for nitrogen dioxide (N02) were introduced by EU law in 1999, and were to be achieved by 2010. ClientEarth, which first launched legal action in 2011, says that 37 out of 43 zones across the UK ''remain in breach of legal limits''.

During the latest legal proceedings, ClientEarth argued that unlawful weight was given by the Government to "cost and political sensitivity" when drawing up the 2015 plan.

It accused the Government of "basically doing the bare minimum and hoping the problem would disappear by 2020."

A Defra spokeswoman said after the High Court ruling: "Improving air quality is a priority for this Government and we are determined to cut harmful emissions.

"Our plans have always followed the best available evidence - we have always been clear that we are ready to update them if necessary and have been at the forefront of action in Europe to secure more accurate, real-world emissions testing for diesel cars.

"Whilst our huge investment in green transport initiatives and plans to introduce Clean Air Zones around the country will help tackle this problem, we accept the court's judgment.

"We will now carefully consider this ruling, and our next steps, in detail."

A Downing Street spokesman later said: "We will look at the judgment and see what we are required to do and then bring forward new plans on improving the air quality in the country. That is something we are determined to do."

Asked whether Mrs May felt the ruling would have implications for plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, the spokesman said: "We were very clear when the decision on Heathrow was made that making sure that air quality was at acceptable levels was going to be a central part of that project. We haven't moved away from that position."

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