autumn dusk with view of London Eye and Big Ben

Treasury blocked plans to meet legal air pollution limits

George Osborne blocked plans to bring air pollution within legal limits in the UK because they were above the absolute minimum the government considered it could get away with, it has been revealed in the High Court.

Last year, environmental lawyers ClientEarth won a case against the government in the Supreme Court over the UK’s illegal levels of air pollution. The government was ordered to produce plans to tackle the UK’s toxic air crisis but those plans were so poor, ClientEarth has been forced to take them back to the High Court.

Now it has emerged that Defra ministers drafted plans that were more ambitious, only to be slapped down by the Treasury, which deemed them of “…high cost to HMG at a time of significant affordability constraints” and above what the government considered was the minimum it could get away with.

Nathalie Lieven QC for ClientEarth told the court that the Treasury wanted the “minimum” measures necessary to achieve compliance and that cost was the overriding factor in decision-making.

She said: “What is absolutely clear is that the cost of the measures and the requirement to keep the costs to a minimum was, in the end, the factor that led to six mandatory Clean Air Zones.

“All the evidence shows that, on the basis of the modelling carried out, six mandatory zones were not going to achieve compliance.”

ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said: “The former Chancellor, George Osborne has some serious questions to answer. There are an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in this country every year because of air pollution. The Treasury’s approach in the face of the tragic toll of air pollution in this country was to oppose anything but the bare minimum as too expensive.

“If the government is to meet its duty and bring air pollution down to within legal limits as soon as possible then it needs to take bold action. If this is blocked, thousands more people will be made sick from air pollution every year.

“The cost of air pollution is clear. It costs lives and it causes ill-health. But what makes the then Chancellor’s behaviour even less understandable is that there is also a significant economic impact. If the government had taken action as the Supreme Court ordered we would not be returning to court, we would all be breathing much healthier air, and the economy would have benefited.”

The flagship policy in the government’s current plans are Clean Air Zones (CAZs) in five cities outside of London – Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton. Court documents reveal that Defra officials were originally far more ambitious, considering 16 such zones necessary to bring air pollution to within legal limits as soon as possible.

The zones would concentrate on the dirtier diesel vehicles, which are responsible for most of the toxic pollutant, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in towns and cities.

The Treasury also blocked the inclusion of cars in any of these zones, which would charge or restrict the most polluting vehicles and vetoed a proposal to introduce fiscal reforms that would discourage the use of diesel.

Defra will set out its defence tomorrow when the hearing is due to conclude.


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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Megan Eaves