London law firm drags government back to court over ‘woeful failure’ to tackle air pollution

Air force: ClientEarth supporters with Caroline Russell (second from left) outside court. Photograph: ClientEarth

A firm of environmental lawyers hauled the government back to court today over its “moral and legal failure” to tackle air pollution.

London-based ClientEarth won its 2015 case in the Supreme Court, which ordered the government to come up with a plan to bring pollution down to legal levels “as soon as possible”.

But the law firm was unhappy with the “vague proposals” outlined by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last December, and has now launched a second legal challenge which started yesterday at the High Court. A verdict is expected in the coming weeks.

ClientEarth’s chief executive James Thornton said: “Defra’s latest figures estimate there are 40,000 early deaths across the UK every year because of air pollution. The government is acting unlawfully by refusing to turn this situation around.

“It is failing morally and it is failing legally to uphold our right to breathe clean air. The government must come up with far bolder measures, ready to face this issue head-on.

“Air quality in this country is nothing short of a public health crisis.”

Green London Assembly Member Caroline Russell was outside the High Court to “express solidarity” with ClientEarth’s #NO2DirtyAir campaign.

She said: “ClientEarth has been completely amazing in chasing the government ever since it first failed to comply with air quality regulations in 2010. It has been tenacious and determined, acting on behalf of citizens across the UK.

“The government has been woeful in its failure to deal with illegal levels of air pollution, and the situation is now reaching a crisis point.”

Defra announced last December that it would introduce clean air zones in major cities, but Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool are not required to have them.

At the time, ClientEarth’s Alan Andrews said: “The government seem to think that the health of people in cities like Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol is less important than that of people in London.

“While London gets a clean air zone covering all vehicles, Birmingham gets a second class zone and Derby and Southampton third class, while other areas including Manchester and Liverpool are left out. We all have the same right to breathe clean air.”

Russell backed up the law firm’s demand for more clean air zones across the UK, adding: “Why should some people be denied the right to clean air? Air is a common good, and that is why we need collective action to protect it.”

Commenting on the launch of a new consultation on how best to introduce the zones in key cities, environment minister Thérèse Coffey said: “We need to tackle air pollution and creating clean air zones will improve the quality of life for people who live and work in our towns and cities, both now and in the future.

“Real progress has been made, but there is more to do, which is why we have also committed more than £2 billion to greener transport schemes since 2011.”