07:15, April 25 116 0 theguardian.com

2017-04-25 07:15:03

 

High court orders UK government to explain clean air plan delay

The government has been ordered back to the high court to explain its last-minute bid to delay publication of the UK’s clean air plan.

Politicians and environmental groups had complained that ministers were “hiding behind the election” after they said they could not publish the proposals because of election purdah.

The high court said on Tuesday that there would be a new hearing on Thursday where ministers will have to defend their application.

James Thornton, CEO of the environmental lawyers ClientEarth, who brought the original case against the government, said they would present their response at the hearing on Thursday.

“This is a public health issue and not a political issue. Urgent action is required to protect people’s health from the illegal and poisonous air that we are forced to breathe in the UK.

“This is a matter for the court to decide once the government has made its arguments because it is the government which has not met, and instead seeks to extend, the court’s deadline for the clean air plan, to clean up our air.”

Ministers had been under a court direction to produce tougher draft measures to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which is largely caused by diesel traffic, by 4pm on Monday. The original plans had been dismissed by judges as so poor as to be unlawful.

But after the announcement by Theresa May of a general election on 8 June, ministers lodged a lengthy application to the court late on Friday. It asked judges to allow them to breach the Monday deadline to “comply with pre-election propriety rules”.

Politicians and environmental groups reacted with anger, claiming ministers were “hiding behind the election” to justify delaying publication of the government’s long awaited proposals instead of tackling the UK’s air pollution crisis. Health experts warned the lack of government action had potentially put thousands of lives at risk.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “It is frankly outrageous that the government thinks it can continue to bury its head in the sand about the serious health impacts of air quality in London and across the country. The prime minister has once again missed this golden opportunity to show real leadership in tackling and improving the air we breathe, which should have been done well before the pre-election period.”

Andrea Leadsom, the environment secretary, was summoned to parliament on Monday to answer urgent questions. During the debate she said she was “personally deeply committed to the importance of ensuring clean air” but had been told by officials in the Cabinet Office that it would breach purdah rules to publish the plans in the run-up to the election.

The government has applied to publish draft plans on 30 June followed by the full policy in September, she said.

Leadsom, who also revealed that it was the second application to delay publication that her department had submitted to the courts, insisted the move would not postpone the rollout of the proposals.

The scale of the air pollution crisis was revealed in a joint Guardian-Greenpeace investigation this month showing hundreds of thousands of children were being educated within 150 metres of a road where levels of nitrogen dioxide from diesel traffic breached legal limits.

Last week figures obtained by Labour showed that more than 38 million people, representing 59.3% of the UK population, were living in areas where levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution were above legal limits.

Research consistently shows that exposure to traffic fumes is harmful to children and adults. Children are more vulnerable because their lungs are still developing and exposure to nitrogen dioxide reduces lung growth, causes long-term ill health and can result in premature death.

ClientEarth’s lawyers will attend the hearing, which has been listed by the court for Thursday at 10.30am. The court has set aside two and a half hours.