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Government must take ‘immediate action’ on air pollution

4th May 2015

The Supreme Court has ordered that the UK government needs to take “immediate action” to prepare a detailed plan of how it will cut the illegal levels of air pollution in 16 cities and regions in Britain.

The case, known as R (on the application of ClientEarth) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, concerned the UK government’s obligations under the EU’s 2008 Air Quality Directive.

This directive set a deadline of 2010 to comply with limits on levels of nitrogen dioxide; however, Articles 22 and 23 of the directive granted a five-year postponement of this deadline on the condition that the government creates an air quality plan for the affected areas and that the ‘exceedance period can be kept as short as possible’.

In 2011 the environmental law activist group ClientEarth brought forward a claim for judicial review of the air quality plans. The group launched a case which reached the Court of Appeal in 2012, followed by a first Supreme Court hearing in 2013, a Court of Justice of the European Union ruling in 2014 and then a second hearing, on 16 April 2015, in the Supreme Court.

In the judgment on the 29th April 2015, five justices granted ClientEarth’s appeal, granting a declaration that there has been a breach of the Air Quality Directive.

The UK government claimed that limits relating to the 16 areas of illegally high air pollution in the UK could not realistically be met by 2015, and thus did not apply for an extension, saying that air quality plans submitted to the European Commission under article 23 of the directive fulfilled the requirements of the exceedance periods being kept as short as possible.

The court made it clear that the next government would be legally bound by its ruling that a comprehensive plan for cutting levels of nitrogen dioxide in polluted areas must be submitted by 31 January 2015.

It added that proceedings are stayed whilst other issues concerning the directive are referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union.