The UK government has been criticised by the Courts, for the third time, for failing to produce an adequate plan to tackle the growing problem of air pollution in a landmark judgment that will force ministers back to the drawing board. Air pollution has become a leading test case for environmental legal activism in the UK due to scientists reporting that as many as 40,000 people a year die from illnesses related to air pollution across the country. A Freedom of Information disclosure has revealed that that the UK government has spent to date over half a million pounds fighting court cases on air quality.

The case was brought by ClientEarth and was its third legal challenge against plans to reduce illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. The high court ruled that the current policy on air pollution was unlawful and ordered the Government to make changes. The most recent case was a challenge to the Government’s plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide. The court heard that, eight years after the UK was found to be in breach of legal limits on pollutants, levels were still too high in thirty seven local authority areas across the country.

Judge, Mr Justice Garnham, ordered ministers to require local authorities to investigate and identify measures to tackle illegal levels of pollution in towns and cities as soon as possible due to the fact that only twelve of the forty five local authority areas are projected to have reached legal levels by the end of 2018.

As a result of judgment, clean air policies in the UK will be overseen by the courts, rather than ministers, in a wholly exceptional ruling. As a result, if ministers fail to remedy the situation, the Judge granted exceptional leave to bring a judicial review without seeking further permission. Mr Justice Garnham, stated that the history of the case showed that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough and recognised that the court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved. He noted a real risk from air pollution and said the government’s plans were seriously flawed.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stated that, whilst it had previously believed that it was sufficient to take a pragmatic approach to areas with less severe air pollution, following the judgment it will be taking a more formal line with the relevant local authorities.

Air quality has been an increasing problem in the UK, with EU-set limits on key pollutants breached frequently over the last decade which has been caused in part by the rise in the number of diesel vehicles on the roads and increasing urbanisation.

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