Defra faces fresh court action over air quality proposals

Environmental campaigners seek High Court review of clean air proposals and consultation


By Jim.Dunton

01 Jun 2017

The Royal Courts of Justice in London Credit: PA

A group of environmental activist lawyers has asked the High Court to review the government’s draft air quality plans because of fears over the robustness of the proposals and missing options from a soon-to-close consultation.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its proposals in early May, after the High Court ruled the long-overdue strategy to deal with EU regulation-busting levels of air pollution in the UK's towns and cities could not wait until after the snap general election.

Measures in the document – which an earlier court ruling had ordered ministers to publish by April 24  –  included plans to mandate local authorities to create and implement comprehensive Clean Air Zones to tackle nitrogen dioxide levels.

It also floated the potential of introducing scrappage schemes for the most polluting vehicles, and retro-fitting measures to improve emissions levels among other vehicles.


However the ClientEarth organisation, which was responsible for earlier High Court challenges to the government’s air quality work, has said it is seeking a new direction from judges over the quality of the proposals themselves and options not contained in the related consultation, which closes shortly after the general election.

It said one particular area of concern was that the consultation did not include measures “which the government’s own technical data shows are the best way to bring down air pollution as soon as possible”.

A second area of concern is the pace of action proposed by the plan, which the group said were “plans for more plans” rather than “plans for action”.

ClientEarth told Civil Service World that it had written to Defra asking for improvements following the publication on 5 May – during the pre-election purdah period – but the department had refused, so it was making use of earlier decisions that entitled it to return to the court and seek further judicial intervention.

Organisation chief executive James Thornton said there were “major flaws” with the draft air quality plans that jeopardised the government’s ability to bring pollution levels down to legal levels in the shortest time possible.

“The government’s plans and consultation do not match what its own evidence says needs to happen,” he said.

“If the evidence shows that taking certain measures will be necessary to tackle the public health crisis of polluted air, then the plans and associated consultation needs to make that clear.

“This is essential so that people can have their say and we get the best possible final plans when they are due to be published, as ordered by the court, on July 31.” 

Thornton said poor air quality represented a "public health crisis". 

“We’re asking the High Court to consider the problems with the plans and consultation," he said. "That is now in the court’s hands.”

ClientEarth said a date for the hearing had yet to be set, but that it was hoped it could be scheduled quickly enough for any court-mandated remedies to be implemented and for the July 31 publication deadline to be met.

The organisation said it had also launched its own portal to allow would-be respondents to the government’s consultation to provide information they would not otherwise be able to offer.

CSW approached Defra for its response to the latest court move.

A spokeswoman said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing legal proceedings."

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