Government set to face fresh legal challenge over air pollution crisis

Environmental campaigners are set to take the government back to court over what they say are ministers’ repeated failings to deal with the UK’s air pollution crisis.

ClientEarth, which has already won two court battles against the government, has written a legal letter demanding that the environment secretary Michael Gove sets out a range of new measures to address air pollution which contributes to the deaths of 40,000 people across the UK each year.

If the government fails to comply with this “letter before action”, as it is known, ClientEarth will issue new proceedings and ministers are likely to face a third judicial review.

The courts forced the government to produce its latest air quality plan in July but the document was was widely criticised as inadequate by environmentalists and clean air campaigners.

ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews, announcing the new legal proceedings, said the government’s proposal had “simply passed the buck to local authorities who will have little option but to impose charges on diesel vehicles”.

He added: “It is high time that the government kept up its end of the bargain and helped ordinary people and small businesses make the shift away from diesel towards cleaner forms of transport.”

The renewed legal pressure on the government comes as new figures show the number of local authority areas in the UK which are breaching their air quality targets reached a seven-year high in 2016.

Government statistics show a total of 278 of the 391 local authorities (71%) missed their air quality targets last year, up from 258 in 2010.

Andrews said the figures were rising despite the government being ordered by both the supreme court and high court to clean up the country’s illegal air pollution “in the shortest possible time”.

“These new figures show that this is a national problem that requires a national solution,” he said.

Client Earth first successfully challenged the government in 2015 when the supreme court ruled ministers must draw up plans to meet EU pollution rules by the end of that year. Eighteen months later, following a second judicial review, the high court judged these new proposals were illegally inadequate.

ClientEarth then challenged the government’s draft proposals that were released in May but this new legal action is likely to lead to the third judicial review of the government’s policy in the past five years.

In its legal letter, ClientEarth points out that under the government’s existing plans 45 local authorities are not being required to take action on air quality, despite being forecast to breach air pollution limits for years to come.

It criticised the government’s lack of progress on key national policies such as changes to the tax system to favour cleaner vehicles; a targeted diesel scrappage scheme and a “clean air fund” to help local authorities tackle pollution.

The letter also calls on the secretary of state to introduce specific measures and a “concrete timetable” to address these failings. The government has until Friday to respond.

The prospect of legal action comes amid growing concern about the scale of the UK’s air pollution crisis. Earlier this month it emerged that as well as illegal levels of diesel pollution, every person in the capital is breathing air that exceeds global guidelines for dangerous tiny toxic particles known as PM2.5.

Last month the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights related to toxic waste said the UK government was “flouting” its duty to protect the lives and health of its citizens from illegal and dangerous levels of air pollution.

And a new study published on Tuesday found that people are increasingly feeling the impact of toxic air. The survey by London Councils revealed that almost half of those surveyed felt their health had been adversely effected, 40% said it had an impact on where they chose to live and a quarter said it was a factor in which school they wanted their children to go to.

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said the findings were further evidence that air pollution was taking its toll on people’s day-to-day lives.

“Air pollution effects everyone, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, including the elderly, children and people with lung conditions. We need strong national policies to support local authorities.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Food and Rural Affairs said the government had “put in place a £3bn 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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