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Supreme Court urged to force government to act over air pollution

Case hits country's highest court just days after nitrogen oxide levels hit new highs in much of country...

The UK’s Supreme Court has been urged to force the government to adhere to EU rules on air pollution, which campaigners say is responsible for nearly 30,000 deaths a year.

Last week, ClientEarth, a member of the Healthy Air Campaign, appeared before the court in the latest chapter of a long-running case against the government, reports the Guardian.

The group, which describes itself as “activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet,” originally brought its case in the High Court in 2011, challenging the government’s proposals to address harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide emissions.

When the case originally went to the Supreme Court in 2013, judges agreed that the country was in breach of the EU’s air quality directive. There’s a full summary here.

ClientEarth’s Ben Jaffrey told the Supreme Court on Thursday that he also wanted to secure “a mandatory order requiring preparation of a new air quality plan that complies with the law.”

The group says initiatives to combat the problem such as congestion and road charging as well as low emissions zones should be implemented as soon as possible and ideally inside the next three months.

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the government’s case is that due to the general election, it cannot meet such a deadline, and that its own proposals are “game-changing.”

Representing Defra, Kassie Smith QC said: “Reducing nitrogen dioxide levels is neither easy nor quick and so plans will be focused and detailed.

“These are issues that take a great deal of time to address because of the nature of the pollutant and the nature of the sources of the pollutant.”

ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews told the Guardian: “We can’t just take Defra’s word for it.

“The court needs to step in and force Defra to come up with a new plan that complies with EU law in the shortest timespan possible. We can’t rely on vague assurances given by the government.”

EU member states had until 2015 to comply with regulations, a deadline the UK missed, and the government says the country is unlikely to meet those criteria until 2030 at the earliest, hence the presentation of its own plans.

One problem is the belated discovery that diesel vehicles, previously treated with a favourable tax regime than petrol-fuelled cars because they were seen to be friendlier in terms of nitrogen dioxide emissions, are in fact more harmful to the environment.

It is anticipated that the Supreme Court’s decision will be rendered before the end of the year, and ClientLaw says: “The government’s plans should then be overturned as unlawful, so that would require a new plan anyway, but we don’t think that would be good enough.

“A mandatory order is urgently needed,” Andrews insisted.

Earlier this month, the government issued a “very high” air pollution warning for parts of south east England due to anticipated record levels of smog.

At the time, Keith Taylor, Green Party MEP for the region affected, told the Guardian: “Whoever forms the next government, one of the first things they must do is to urgently address this public health crisis that currently only seems to be getting worse.”

While the British government has been criticised by many campaigners for its approach to the issue, initiatives elsewhere such as a licence plate ban in Paris, which permits vehicles with even- or odd-numbered plates to circulate on alternate days, have been highlighted as examples to follow.

Simon Birkett, director of Clean Air in London, said: “This is the biggest, most serious air pollution or particle episode since the so-called Sahara dust episode a year ago.

“If there is one lesson this week, it’s that we must follow the lead of cities like Paris that are issuing public health warnings, restricting traffic and putting forward ambitious plans to triple cycling rates within five years,” he added.

While much of the focus on air pollution in the UK is on London – last month, it was revealed that the 50 worst locations monitored are all in the capital, each double the EU threshold – the problem is a national one.

Last week, Philip Insall, Director of Health for Sustrans said: “The poor state of air pollution in Britain is both criminal and a national embarrassment.

“We know that local air pollution is causing at least 29,000 premature deaths a year and we know that it is primarily due to emissions from motor traffic. It’s clear that we can only address this by reducing reliance on motor vehicles.

“The next government will need to get a grip on air pollution.  That will mean serious, dedicated investment and an effective programme of action to help more people out of their cars and choosing walking and cycling for short journeys.”

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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