A senior judge has said the courts must “keep the pressure” on the Government to make sure it meets targets on air pollution.
Environmental lawyers ClientEarth won a third victory over the Government for its “continuing failure” to reduce harmful nitrogen dioxide levels to within legal limits.
Mr Justice Garnham ruled on Wednesday that current plans, drawn up last year, were unlawful because they did not comply with either a European directive or English regulations designed to reduce levels of the pollutant.
He ordered ministers to prepare a fresh plan, including any measures to be taken and a timeline for implementing them, by October 5.
In a legal first, he also took the “wholly exceptional” step of allowing ClientEarth to return to court without having to go through the usual process if it wishes to raise any issues with the finalised plans.
He said: “It is now eight years since compliance should have been achieved and the 2017 air quality plan is the third unsuccessful attempt the Government has made.
“All the while, the health of those living in towns and cities across the country has continued to be at risk.”
He said he had no doubt the Government has acted in good faith and worked hard to reduce air pollution.
However, he added: “The history of this litigation demonstrates that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough.
“The court it seems must keep the pressure on the Government to ensure compliance with the directive is actually achieved.”
The judge said the need to address air pollution was “urgent” and that ClientEarth has acted responsibly as a “monitor” of the Government’s actions.
He found the Government’s approach to tackling pollution in 45 local authority areas was “not sufficient”.
Ministers will now have to ensure 33 councils draw up urgent plans to reduce pollution, as the remaining 12 are expected to comply with the regulations by the end of this year.
The measures in last year’s plan included £255 million to help local authorities come up with ways to improve air quality, and proposals to end the sale of all conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
ClientEarth’s latest case was brought against the Environment Secretary and the Transport Secretary, while a claim against the Welsh Government was discontinued after it agreed to work on new proposals.
Welsh ministers accepted their air quality plan did not meet the requirements of either the European directive or Welsh regulations, and said they were prepared to give an undertaking to rectify the situation.
The judge rejected ClientEarth’s case in relation to the Government’s monitoring and modelling and its plans for five cities, including London, which are not expected to reach compliance until 2028.
He said the approach to the five cities was “sensible, rational and lawful”.
ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop said: “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.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “The court has asked us to go further in areas with less severe air quality problems.
“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.
“We have already delivered significant improvements in air quality since 2010 and we will continue to implement our £3.5 billion air quality plan.”