High Court rules Government air pollution plans 'illegal'

THE GOVERNMENT'S strategy for tackling air pollution has been ruled illegal by the High Court in what London mayor Sadiq Khan described as a "wake-up call" for ministers.

By law, the Government must tackle illegally high levels of nitrogen oxide "in the shortest time possible" but a challenge by NGO ClientEarth successfully argued that the current strategy excluded measures that could reduce pollution because of Treasury concerns over costs and the political fallout of options such as charging diesel vehicles to enter towns and cities.

Mr Justice Garnham also said that ministers' plans were based on over-optimistic modelling of pollution based on laboratory tests of diesel vehicles rather than real-world emissions, which research has shown to be far higher.

It is the second time in 18 months that the Government's air pollution strategy has been struck down as inadequate, with ClientEarth winning a Supreme Court challenge on the same grounds in April 2015.

Air pollution is estimated to cause between 40,000 and 50,000 early deaths every year, according to the Government's own figures.  

In April, the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Select Committee described pollution levels as a "public health emergency".

The Government said it will not appeal against the High Court ruling, with Prime Minister Theresa May saying Defra will "look again at the proposals we will bring forward".

London mayor Sadiq Khan, who took part in the High Court hearing as an interested party, said the ruling must act as a "wake-up call" for ministers to take effective action.

With 9,400 deaths every year linked to the capital's air pollution, the mayor has proposed more than doubling London's planned Ultra Low Emission Zone and bringing forward its introduction by a year to 2019, as well as introducing a new emissions surcharge within the Congestion Charge Zone from 2017.

He said the High Court case "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".

"Serious action by the Government is long overdue and if we had been given the tools to tackle this head-on in the first place we would have been on the road to compliance much sooner," he added.

"We need bold measures, fit for the 21st century, such as those I have proposed, so people no longer have to fear the air they breathe.

"I am calling for the Government's revised package of measures to include funding a national diesel scrappage scheme to take the most polluting vehicles off our roads and an overhaul of vehicle excise duty to incentivise the buying of the cleanest vehicles, as well as powers to tackle non-road sources of NO2, including from construction. The Government needs to take urgent action to achieve legal air quality limits, reduce harmful emissions and protect public health."

Neil Parish MP, chair of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee, said the committee will be "demanding answers" from ministers about how they will improve their plans to meet legal requirements.

"We published a report in April demanding that the Government publishes a comprehensive air quality strategy. The Government rejected our recommendation. Defra said that it had already set out a comprehensive plan for reducing nitrogen dioxide levels across the UK, but the High Court latest ruling shows that its plans are inadequate," he added.

"Our report criticised the Government for planning new Clean Air Zones for only five cities, when dozens of places have health damaging pollution levels. With some 40,000–50,000 deaths attributable to poor air quality each year, the court ruling underlines our call for immediate action across the country."