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Councils get legal risk warning over ‘glacial’ progress on air pollution

Local authorities in England and Wales have received a written warning of the legal risk of inaction on air pollution after missing government deadlines to produce air quality plans.

Vehicle exhaust

ClientEarth says it’s not ruled out further legal action to tackle toxic air in towns and cities across the country

The warning comes from environmental lawyers at ClientEarth, which says it’s extremely concerned at the “glacial” progress of action from the 38 local authorities in question, given the urgency of the situation.

ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield continued: “Judging by what they are telling residents, many have missed government deadlines to submit plans and some have consulted on potentially legally compliant action before scaling back proposals and delaying decisions.”

This includes Derby, which has failed to publish its final proposals six months after the original deadline set by ministers of 15 September last year.

Instead of requiring urgent action, the Government decided to extend Derby’s deadline to come up with proposals. Its final plans are now due on 26th March but, at the time of writing, the council’s website has no information on the status of the proposals or their content, according to ClientEarth.

Many other authorities are also yet to publish detailed proposals, months after the original 31 December deadline set by ministers for their final plans.

Nield added: “The courts have been clear that the UK Government is obliged to ensure plans are put in place as soon as can be, but instead ministers seem to be setting deadlines and simply watching them sail past.

“It is now almost a decade since legal limits came into place and they are still being broken in large parts of the country. Every week that goes by without action is another week where people are breathing in harmful air pollution which damages their health. This is particularly true of vulnerable groups like children.”

In response, ClientEarth, which won three legal cases against the UK government over illegal levels of air pollution across the country, says it’s not ruled out further legal action to tackle toxic air in towns and cities across the country. It’s also sent the councils a briefing, which outlines their responsibilities and warns that if their final proposals do not satisfy the necessary legal requirements, they will be open to legal challenge.

The organisation also said the lack of progress was the result of the Government’s flawed approach of passing the buck to ill-equipped local authorities.

Current air quality plans, published in 2017 as a result of continued legal action from ClientEarth, saw the Government backtrack on forcing charging clean air zones to be mandatory in areas – instead placing the focus on the local authorities to make the decision themselves on the quickest way to cut illegal levels of air pollution.

Nield finished: “Aside from the legal situation, this is a moral failure from politicians at all levels. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the central government to sort this out but local authorities should not be using government inaction as an excuse not to do all they can to protect people from breathing dirty air.”

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Natalie Middleton

Natalie has worked as a fleet journalist for 16 years, previously as assistant editor on the former Company Car magazine before joining Fleet World in 2006. Prior to this, she worked on a range of B2B titles, including Insurance Age and Insurance Day. As Business Editor, Natalie ensures the group websites and newsletters are updated with the latest news.