The government chose an arbitrary date of 2020 to comply with tough pollution laws because it was thought that would be the earliest it would be fined by the European Commission.
The revelation came in a High Court hearing today, where environmental lawyers ClientEarth are back in court against the government over its failure to tackle the pollution crisis across the UK.
ClientEarth’s barrister, Nathalie Lieven QC, told the court that 2020 was an arbitrary date rather than one which would bring the UK into compliance with EU air quality rules “as soon as possible.”
The High Court was told that the Secretary of State’s “entire approach was driven by cost.”
The Supreme Court ordered the government to draw up a new Air Quality plan in April last year but ClientEarth argues that it was woefully inadequate and wants the High Court to order new measures to deal with pollution.
The organisation’s QC said that there was “at the minimum, a heated debate going on in government” at the time about compliance dates.
ClientEarth’s skeleton argument notes that Defra officials said they had “used projected exceedances in 2020 as the basis for defining the worst areas…based on our understanding that 2020 is likely to be the earliest the EU will move to fines.”
But Nathalie Lieven told the first day of a two day Judicial Review hearing that the obvious year to choose for “as soon as possible” compliance would have been 2018 or 2019.
She also said that modelling undertaken by Defra didn’t even consider earlier dates. “There is simply no evidence to support the proposition that no more could have been done,” she said.
“The Secretary of State chose to use a model which…she knew was highly optimistic…in order to justify minimal measures.”
Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at London’s Queen Mary University, said: “Every day that passes, air pollution is damaging the lungs of children across the UK. It is therefore not acceptable to hope that air pollution will fall at some point in the distant future.
“The government must act now to protect this generation of children.”
The hearing is due to conclude tomorrow when Defra will present their defence.