The UK government has lost a high court bid to delay publishing draft plans to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis until after the general election on June 8.
Last November, ministers were taken to court by the environmental group ClientEarth over their failure to take measures to reduce air pollution — which put them in breach of domestic regulations and EU law. Justice Neil Garnham ruled in favor of ClientEarth and ordered Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state, to publish a draft plan to tackle air pollution from diesel traffic by April 24—but she failed to do so.
“In November 2016, I found the secretary of state was in breach of directives and regulations. The secretary of state remains in breach. She is obliged to comply as soon as possible,” said Garnham to the Guardian, adding that any further delay would constitute a further breach.
On April 24 the government was called to court by Garnham to explain why a last-minute application was made on April 21 to delay the publication of a draft policy to tackle air pollution until after the general election. Barrister James Eadie, representing the government, said the new policy was ready to be published but should be withheld until after the election because it would be controversial.
“If you publish a draft plan, it drops all the issues of controversy into the election … like dropping a controversial bomb,” said Eadie, adding that this could risk breaching rules about civil service neutrality and could lead to the policy being labelled a Tory plan.
The court decided that the threat to public health constituted “exceptional circumstances,” which meant “purdah” guidelines, in the runup to a general election could be waived. “Immediate publication [of the policy] is essential,” said Garnham, adding that “it does not give ministers a defense to the principles of private and public law … It is not binding on the courts. It provides no immediate right for an extension of time to comply with an order of the court. It is not a trump card.”
New measures are likely to include the imposition of multiple clean-air zones across the country — where drivers will be fined if they do not pass roadside emissions tests.
In the hearing, Garnham ordered ministers to publish their draft plans by May 9, following the May 4 local elections — and said the government must comply with his original order and release their final policy on tackling the air crisis by July 31.
“These steps are necessary in order to safeguard public health,” said Garnham. “The continued failure of the government to comply with directives and regulations constitutes a significant threat to public health.”
Garnham said the government’s own figures showed that nitrogen dioxide pollution – primarily from diesel traffic – is linked to 23,500 premature deaths in the UK per year. “That is more than 64 deaths each day.”
James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth, welcomed the ruling and said “the government has never stopped delaying when it comes to cleaning up our air. I would urge them not to appeal and to get on with it. Enough dithering. The judge was extremely clear.”
According to Sue Hayman, shadow environment secretary, this was the third time the government has lost in court over the issue, adding that “the government must publish their air quality plan without delay. A Labour government would bring forward a new Clean Air Act setting out how we would tackle air pollution.”
Ed Davey, former secretary of state for energy and climate change, said that “this is a dramatic defeat for the Conservative government. Ministers have used taxpayer money to try to hide proof of their environmental failures. And they have even failed there, too. With scientists showing the health impact of air pollution being far worse than we thought, it is disgraceful for the Conservatives to try to bury the truth from voters.”