In the latest instalment of a long-running legal dispute, ClientEarth – a group of environmental lawyers – has won a third High Court victory over the Government for plans to tackle air pollution. Tod Davies outlines the ruling below.

The EU Directive that outlines acceptable limits of nitrogen dioxide in the air obliges member-states to make plans to remedy unacceptable levels as soon as possible. The UK hasn’t been compliant with this Directive since 2010.

The UK has now had three Air Quality Plans. Client Earth successfully judicially reviewed the first in 2011 for being inadequate. In 2015, it reviewed the second, which was also quashed. The Government delayed during last year’s general election, but, now, ClientEarth has reviewed, and quashed, a third plan.

Last month, Justice Garnham ruled the third plan unlawful – largely because the actions to bring down air pollution wouldn’t be brought in quickly enough. 

ClientEarth is a charity, and the costs of litigation are a huge challenge for it. The Judge suggested keeping the present proceedings alive, so that the whole process doesn’t have to be repeated if ClientEarth wants to challenge a fourth plan. This means that, if the Government falls short in its compliance, ClientEarth could go back to the same Judge.

The day after the judgment, the Government announced that it won’t appeal.

ClientEarth originally brought this case against the Welsh Government too but dropped it after the Government agreed to work with together on new air quality proposals.

The Judge noted that the Welsh Ministers recognised that their own plan didn’t comply with the EU Directive or the domestic regulations. The Welsh Government said it would work closely with ClientEarth on a legally-binding agreement and announced plans to open a new Welsh air quality centre.

Nitrogen dioxide is predominately caused by vehicles. Any meaningful plan to tackle air pollution levels will involve some degree of restriction– particularly for diesel – as well as electric car initiatives. Such a move will probably be unpopular with motorists – as well as being costly – so it’s unsurprising that the Government has dragged its feet through these hurdles.

But, the tide may be turning. Air pollution, like many other environmental issues, has moved up the political agenda since ClientEarth brought its first challenge in 2011. The Government itself recognises that the problem kills 23,500 people a year.

With news that the Government doesn’t intend to appeal this recent ruling, as well as the approach the Welsh Ministers are taking, we may well be on our way to cleaner skies.