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Cost at heart of government air pollution inaction

The judge presiding over ClientEarth’s case against the UK Government for breaching EU air pollution laws has said cost is the crux of the case.

ClientEarth has argued since the start of its legal action several years ago that cost has affected the government’s progress on compliance.

Mr Justice Garnham’s remarks on day two of the Judicial Review follows evidence in ClientEarth’s argument heard yesterday, which revealed that former Chancellor George Osborne had blocked more ambitious plans to reduce UK pollution on cost grounds.

In exchanges with Defra’s barrister, the judge said cost was “the nub of this case; how much cost played a part in the decisions taken”.

ClientEarth argues that the government failed to take action to comply with legal air pollution limits “as soon as possible” and was focused on cost over compliance.

Defra has set out its defence today. Its QC said Defra has “always accepted” it was in breach of EU pollution limits and “did not resile” from its duty to reduce NO2.

She added: “This does not mean that the question of cost and proportionality do not come into consideration.”

Defra argues that: “The Air Quality Plan contains proportionate, feasible and effective measures to address the anticipated non-compliant nitrogen dioxide levels in particular zones.”

In later exchanges, the judge suggested that proportionate action “achieves the objective with minimal innocent casualties,” but said the government seemed to consider what was proportionate “in regard to the rest of government business.”

He concluded: “You mean by that, cost.”

ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said: “It is patently obvious from the evidence we have heard so far in this case that cost has been the primary and overriding factor in the government’s lack of action on air pollution.

“The judge is correct that cost does appear to be the nub of this case – and at the heart of government’s failure to protect our health by complying with the law. Time spent balancing cost against projected effectiveness is time when thousands continue to  be made seriously ill by air pollution.

“Health is more important than Treasury bean-counting and ministers should, urgently, put health first.

“We all – children and adults alike – have the right to breathe clean air.”

The two-day hearing has now concluded. Judgment has been reserved. ClientEarth hopes for a ruling in the coming weeks.

This post was updated on12 January 2017 to better reflect research into the health impacts of air pollution. Air pollution and your health – what are the facts?

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Joshua Earle

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