Campaigners lose air quality legal battle

Campaign group ClientEarth pledges to take fight to Supreme Court after judge rules in favour of Defra over air quality plan, writes Will Date

Environmental campaigners have today (May 30) failed in their attempt to force the government to produce a new air quality strategy.

In December, a High Court ruling forced the government to concede that the UK was above the legal pollution limit set by the European Union.

The court ruled that any action to force the government to submit a new strategy for improving air quality would have to be carried out by the European Commission.

Environmental campaign group ClientEarth lost its case against Defra in the Court of Appeal on May 30

The Court of Appeal upheld the High Court decision, after a legal challenge by environmental campaign group ClientEarth which claims that air quality plans for 17 regions and cities would not comply with legal limits for air quality until after 2015.

Defra welcomed the court’s decision.

The case lasted just two hours rather than the two days expected.

ClientEarth had launched its appeal on the grounds that the government’s decision not to apply for a five-year extension to produce a plan to bring the UK in-line with the EU targets “undermined the effectiveness” of the EU initiative, designed to protect public health.

In court today, the group argued that EU limits for nitrogen dioxide are regularly breached in UK cities – including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow – despite the fact the deadline for meeting these limits passed in January 2010.

The court heard that heightened levels of nitrogen dioxide can cause serious health problems – including asthma and other respiratory illnesses – and contribute to 29,000 premature deaths each year.

Dismissing the appeal, Lord Justice Laws upheld that the judgment from the High Court stood, saying the EU law had been interpreted correctly and therefore no discussion of possible domestic “remedies” was necessary.

Reacting to the judgement, a spokesman for Defra said: “We are pleased with today’s Court of Appeal judgment.

“A significant part of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants and air quality has improved considerably in recent decades.  Our air quality plans for nitrogen dioxide set out all the important work being done to meet EU standards in the shortest possible time.”


Following the ruling ClientEarth told that it is planning to take the case to the Supreme Court as well as lobbying the European Commission for action.

Alan Andrews, health and environment lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “The judges agreed with Defra’s interpretation of the Air Quality Directive that the UK does not have to apply for extra time for compliance with nitrogen dioxide limits.

“The ball is very firmly in the Commission’s court now. They have just over a month to review the UK’s air quality plan and we think it is highly likely they will reject the plant and institute enforcement action against the UK which could see the UK hauled up in front of the European court.

“We are hugely disappointed [about the ruling]. This is really a slap in the face for anyone who cares about air quality in the UK. But it’s not the end of this matter. We will be applying for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and be talking to the Commission to try to get them to take action.”

The case is expected to be monitored by other European Member States and the European Commission itself. This is partly because other states will be interested to see whether or not the Commission does decide to take any action against the UK and if so, when.

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