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Government under fire after High Court defeat on air quality plan

Words: Huw Morris

Environmentalists and the London mayor have launched a withering attack on the government after it suffered a major defeat in the High Court over plans to delay publishing its air pollution strategy.

Mr Justice Garnham rejected an application by environment secretary Andrea Leadsom to postpone the strategy’s publication until the end of June. The government claimed that publication breached purdah rules, banning government announcements with controversial implications during the run-up to elections. It had a deadline of 24 April to set out draft proposals for tackling nitrogen dioxide pollution.

Mr Justice Garnham said purdah was “not a trump card” to justify failing to meet an earlier order to publish the strategy.

He ordered the government to publish the plan on May 9 after local elections, warning that nitrogen dioxide costs 23,500 lives a year.

“We are delighted with the ruling,” said James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, the group of environmental lawyers pursuing the action. “We cannot afford more dither and delay from the government. Rather than appeal this decision, they need to get on and produce their plans to bring down air pollution as soon as possible.

“The judge agreed with us that this is a matter of public health, not politics.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan said the verdict meant the government “will now have to face its responsibilities sooner rather than later”.

He added: “Ministers were dragged kicking and screaming to face the huge scale of this health crisis, but rather than take immediate action to protect the public they deliberately used the election as a smokescreen to hold back their plan.”

The ruling is the third against the government over its failure to tackle air pollution. The Supreme Court and the High Court had previously ruled the lack of an effective plan breached EU and domestic law.

Poor air quality is estimated to cause 40,000 early deaths a year, according to the Royal College of Physicians, including the 23,500 from nitrogen dioxide. “That’s an average of more than 64 deaths each day of the year,” said Mr Justice Garnham.


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