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New legal bid over ‘stubborn failure’ to cut illegal air pollution

The Government faces being taken back to court over concerns its new air quality plans fall short of what is needed to curb the problem.

Environmental lawyers are launching new legal action against the Government over its “stubborn failure” to tackle illegal air pollution.

ClientEarth, which has won two previous court cases against ministers over failures to meet legal limits for harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide, said the latest Government plans to tackle the problem still fell short of what was needed.

Ministers unveiled court-mandated plans for meeting the European Union limits on nitrogen dioxide, much of which comes from road transport and particularly diesel vehicles, in July, after a long-running legal battle with the environmental legal charity.

The plans included £255 million to help local authorities come up with ways to improve air quality, ranging from improving public transport and changing road layouts, to charging zones for polluting vehicles if other measures are insufficient.

But much of the focus was on plans to end the sale of all conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040, to help tackle air pollution and climate change emissions.

Air pollution

The Government was ordered to produce the latest air pollution plans after the courts ruled previous proposals were insufficient to meet EU pollution limits, which the UK has breached since the rules came into effect in 2010.

Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and is linked to health problems from childhood illnesses to heart disease and even dementia.

ClientEarth has put in an application for judicial review on the grounds the latest plan backtracks on previous commitments to order five cities to introduce “clean air zones” by 2020.

And the plan does not require any action in 45 local authorities in England, despite them having illegal levels of pollutants, or require any action by Wales to bring down air pollution as quickly as possible, the legal team said.

ClientEarth names the Environment Secretary, the Transport Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs in the Welsh Government as defendants.

Chief executive James Thornton said: “The UK Government’s stubborn failure to tackle illegal and harmful levels of pollution in this country means that we have no choice but to take legal action.”

And he said: “This is a national problem that requires a national solution.

“The Government’s own evidence shows that we need a national network of charging clean air zones, which will keep the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted areas of our towns and cities, so why aren’t drivers being prepared for it?

“It’s time ministers came clean about the size of the problem and the difficult decisions needed to solve it.”

He said the Government should be helping people and small businesses move to cleaner forms of transport, with financial policies to drive a shift away from “dirty diesel”, and contributions from the car industry to a “clean air fund”, as in Germany.

The Environment Department (Defra) said it could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.

But a spokesman said: “We have put in place a £3 billion plan to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions.

“We will also end the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, and next year we will publish a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution.”

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