Clean Air: What happens next?

Last week at the UK Supreme Court, ClientEarth won an historic victory in the battle for the right to breathe clean air. Judges unanimously ruled in our favour, ordering the UK Government to scrap its weak plans to reduce air pollution in our towns and cities and come up with new ones by the end of the year.

Now that the dust has settled, it is a good time to take stock of what it means in practical terms for Britain’s air quality and the policies which are so urgently needed to improve it. The Court has made it clear that air pollution, for so long a forgotten issue, must now be a top priority:

“The new Government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue.”

To produce new air quality plans by the end of the year, work will have to start as soon as a new Government is formed after the election. The plans must set out measures which will achieve nitrogen dioxide limits “in the shortest time possible”. The Court stopped short of imposing a deadline for when those plans must achieve the limits, but was clearly unimpressed by the Government’s projections that current plans wouldn’t do the job until some undefined time after 2030.

It didn’t dictate how the Government should go about cleaning up the air, but did rule that the new plan must be comprehensive and consider a range of options, including:

“measures to limit transport emissions through traffic planning and management (including congestion pricing, differentiated parking fees or other economic incentives; establishing low emission zones)” [See Annex XV B of the Directive of which the Government is in breach].

So the Government’s plan had better be good, not least because it will now be the subject of close scrutiny from several quarters:

First, from the courts. While the Supreme Court has had its final say on this case, it has given the lower courts an important role to play in supervising the preparation and implementation of a new plan. In the words of one legal commentator: “Our courts will now have to roll up their sleeves and keep Defra up to the mark.”

Second, from the European Commission – which launched its own legal action against the UK over NO2 pollution in February 2014, but put this on ice pending the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, if it sees that the new air quality plan isn’t up to scratch, it will seek to crank up the pressure on the UK by bringing its own case before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, from the public. The Government is required to publish its draft plan for public consultation, probably in the Autumn. Public awareness of the issue has grown markedly in recent years, as shown by the recent You Gov poll which showed that nearly 7 out of 10 Londoners thought that the Government wasn’t doing enough to protect them from air pollution. Increased media coverage of the issue could be behind this: a series of smog episodes and our court case have seen air pollution regularly hitting the headlines over the last year. So this time the Government’s plans will have to stand up to scrutiny not just in a court of law, but also the court of public opinion.

We think a national network of low emission zones should be the cornerstone of the new plan. Put simply, low emission zones keep the most polluting vehicles away from busy town centres and other places – such as hospitals and schools – where proximity to pollution poses a serious health risk. They do this by banning (or sometimes charging) vehicles unless they meet certain emission performance standards.

The Mayor of London has proposed an ultra low emission zone (or “ULEZ”) for London by 2020, which would require most diesel vehicles entering central London to be the latest “Euro 6” standard. The ULEZ is a step in the right direction but needs to go further, which will require the support of national government. It will need to be bigger and better if it is bring London into compliance in an acceptable timeframe.

But air pollution is not confined within the M25: it is a national public health crisis that needs a national solution. Rolling out low emission zones nationally will ensure that the dirty diesel buses and lorries displaced from London by the ULEZ aren’t simply moved to other towns and cities.

A national network of low emission zones would compliment other policies that are needed, such as a major investment in cycling infrastructure so that people have a realistic alternative to driving an old diesel car into town.

Whoever forms the next Government will need to show a sense of ambition and urgency to tackle this invisible public health crisis.

You can read the full Supreme Court judgement here.


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