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Government loses bid to delay air pollution plan

Ministers had applied for a postponement days before the April 24 deadline to set out draft measures on reducing illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.

A bid by the Government to delay publishing its plans to tackle illegal air pollution until after the General Election has failed at the High Court.

Its lawyers told Mr Justice Garnham that publication would drop a “controversial bomb” into the mix of local and national elections.

Ministers were given until 4pm on Monday April 24 to set out draft measures on reducing illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution after the judge ruled last year that existing plans to meet EU-mandated air quality limits were inadequate and must be improved.

But days before the deadline, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) applied to postpone publication of the draft clean air plan until after the June 8 poll.

On Thursday in London, the judge rejected the Government’s application.

He said that the draft plan must be published on May 9 to allow for any changes following the local government elections which take place on May 4, with the date for the final plan unchanged on July 31.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We will consider the judgment and decide what we do next.”

Defra said a delay was necessary in order to comply with “purdah” rules on government announcements during the election period.

Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom has told MPs it was “not appropriate” to publish now and pledged to unveil the draft proposals on June 30.

James Eadie QC said the application was brought with considerable reluctance and was not “some sort of guise or demonstration of lack of commitment to improving air quality”.

Nathalie Lieven QC, for ClientEarth, said there were not sufficient grounds to justify the proposed delay.

Calling for publication and action as soon as possible, she said: “This is a huge focus of public concern and a huge issue for the media. It is an issue in this election whether the Government publishes the consultation or not.”

Limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were introduced by EU law in 1999, and were to be achieved by 2010. Air pollution is linked to an estimated 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and some 37 out of 43 regions of the country are in breach of legal limits for nitrogen dioxide.

The judge said that “purdah” was in no sense binding on the courts and was not a “trump card” to be deployed at will by a litigant.

It was preferable to avoid making policy decisions in the run-up to an election but, here, the incoming government would be facing the identical issues.

The draft plan would not be “set in stone”. It was for the future administration to make the final decision.

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