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Government ordered back to court to explain clean air plan delay

Words: Huw Morris

The government has been ordered to return to the High Court to explain its application to delay publication of its clean air plan. A new hearing will be held on Thursday when government lawyers will defend its controversial move.

Under the application, made late last week, the plans would be published on 30 June followed by the full policy in September.

The government had been set a deadline to unveil draft measures to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution by 4pm last Monday. Judges had ruled in November that its original plans were illegally poor and placed too much weight on costs.

The government applied for the delay in the light of the announced general election on 8 June, arguing that publishing the plans would breach purdah rules.

Opposition politicians and environmentalists attacked the move, citing Cabinet Office guidance, which says purdah rules can be lifted in exceptional circumstances such as safeguarding public health. They point to research by the Royal College of Physicians, which indicates that air pollution causes around 40,000 early deaths a year.

Summoned to Parliament to answer urgent questions on Monday, environment secretary Andrea Leadsom said the issue was a “very significant and urgent concern” and that she was “personally deeply committed to the importance of ensuring clean air”.

Leadsom told MPs this was the second application by her department to delay publication.

ClientEarth, the group of environmental lawyers that has successfully challenged the government twice over air pollution, described the government’s move as “unacceptable”.

“This is a question of public health and not of politics and for that reason we believe that the plans should be put in place without delay,” said chief executive James Thornton. “Whichever party ends up in power after 8th June will need this Air Quality Plan to begin finally to tackle our illegal levels of pollution and prevent further illness and early deaths from toxins in the air we breathe. The government has had five months to draft this plan and it should be published.”

Image: iStock