The UK supreme court has given the Government a deadline to formulate new plans for cutting air pollution, in a decision that could force ministers to consider congestion charging for the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.
A case brought by ClientEarth, a third sector organisation of activist environmental lawyers, saw a panel of judges unanimously rule that ‘the government must prepare and consult on new air quality plans for submission to the European commission ... no later than 31 December 2015’.
Announcing the decision, Lord Carnwath said: ‘The new Government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue.’
The Government had been fighting the case after failing to meet strict EU targets on levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide, a by-product of diesel vehicle engines, which now make up more than a third of the UK’s fleet.
Regions across the country, particularly London, were in breach of the target since 2010, although there was provision to allow a member states to postpone fines until the beginning of this year, if they could show that they had an action plan in place.
The Government took advantage of this so-called Article 22 extension in some areas, however many regions also missed the deadline of January 2015, with no plan in place either.
In areas including Greater London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire, the Government did not even apply for an extension, as there was no expectation targets could be met before 2030.
Government lawyers moved straight to Article 23 of the EU air quality directive, which finds a state in breach and forces them to comply in as short a time as possible.
The ruling today means the Government must draw up plans to tackle air pollution in these worst affected areas with the supreme court suggesting ministers should include consideration of measures to limit transport emissions through traffic planning and management, including congestion pricing, differentiated parking fees or other economic incentives.
In his ruling, Lord Carnwarth added ‘I agree with that approach, but do not regard it as necessary to spell it out in an order of the court’.
ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said: ‘Air pollution kills tens of thousands of people in this country every year. We brought our case because we have a right to breathe clean air and today the supreme court has upheld that right.
'This ruling will benefit everyone’s health but particularly children, older people and those with existing health conditions like asthma and heart and lung conditions.
'The next Government, regardless of the political party or parties, which take power, is now legally bound to take urgent action on this public health crisis. Before next week’s election all political parties need to make a clear commitment to policies which will deliver clean air and protect our health.’
The European Commission can impose fines on the UK over its breaches in air quality. It started the legal process recently by sending a formal letter in February.
The fines could add up to £300m and be passed on to cash strapped councils by central government, however a lawyer for ClientEarth said the process would take years and would have to involve the Commission taking the UK government through the European Court of Justice.
A government spokeswoman said: 'Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgement recognises, work is already underway on revised plans to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible.
'It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.'