Thirty-three local authorities are being summoned to meet with the government to discuss their plans for reducing pollution levels in their areas after a High Court judge ruled its air quality plan is “unlawful”.
While councils are being “urged and encouraged to come up with proposals to improve air quality”, Mr Justice Garnham’s judgement, delivered yesterday, warned that “polite letters from the government” urging action “are not enough”.
“Whilst I see no obligation on the secretary of state to impose legal directions on local authorities covering every stage in the process of achieving compliance, in my view the failure to make mandatory any step in the case of the 45 [local authorities in which nitrogen dioxide exceeds safe levels] means that the government cannot show either that it is taking steps to ‘ensure’ compliance or, as a result, that compliance is ‘likely’.”
Because, in part, the government’s air quality plan “does not contain measures sufficient to ensure substantive compliance” the judge ruled it “is unlawful”.
Councils are responsible for local air quality and a number of areas have been identified by the government as being at risk of repeatedly exceeding their NO2 pollution limits. They have been given three years to develop and implement plans to improve air quality.
Of the 45 local authorities, 12 are expected to achieve compliance in 2018.
LGC reported last year how the sector warned that reducing pollution levels will require political will at the highest level to achieve anything more than marginal gains, while Lord Porter (Con), chair of the Local Government Association, said: “Any new burdens for councils must be fully funded by the new government”.
Neither has been forthcoming.
Yesterday’s ruling followed a case brought by charity ClientEarth. Its lawyer Anna Heslop said: “For the third time in the space of three years, the courts have declared that the government is failing in its obligation to clean up the air in our towns and cities.
“We are delighted that the court has today ordered the government to urgently take further action to fix the dangerous air pollution in our towns and cities.”
Responding to the ruling a government spokesperson acknowledged the court has “asked us to go further in areas with less severe air quality problems” and added: “We had previously considered that it was sufficient to take a pragmatic, less formal approach to such areas. However, in view of the court’s judgment, we are happy to take a more formal line with them.”
LGC understands the government had, before the ruling, already asked councils to provide details of measures they are taking to improve air quality by 28 February and requested they travel to Westminster to discuss these in detail.