A judge in the High Court has ruled against environmental law group ClientEarth's legal challenge to the government's draft air quality plan.
ClientEarth today argued that the latest air quality plan published by the government on 5 May was inadequate and ignored its own scientific evidence on what needs to be done to cut air pollution to legal levels.
The group also argued that plans for tackling air pollution in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland did not go far enough.
The judge said the plan could be successfully challenged once it's been adopted by the government, if it's then shown not to comply with previous rulings.
Right now the plan is a draft, and a final policy is not due until 31 July.
The government's own technical report published alongside the draft plan in May shows that 27 clean air zones are needed to effectively combat air pollution. It also makes clear that diesel is the biggest contributor to nitrogen dioxide air pollution at the roadside.
But the plan only includes six proposed clean air zones: London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Southampton, Derby, and Leeds. It says local authorities should come up with their own "innovative" plans to reduce air pollution and use methods other than clean air zones if they can. It also doesn't include any financial incentives for drivers to trade in their diesel cars.
When it was first published, ClientEarth said the plan was "weaker than we'd hoped for" and David Green, deputy air quality monitoring manager at King's College London, told BuzzFeed News that it was "essentially toothless".
But in court today, the government said ClientEarth was "prejudging the consultation process" and that this challenge was "premature". The plan published in May is currently out for public consultation and could change, it argued.
ClientEarth accused the government of ignoring some responses to the consultation. In court, the government said it'd so far had 747 responses – far short of the 11,000 ClientEarth say they and other groups helped members of the public submit through an online form.
James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO said: “We are shocked that, on an issue which blights the lives of thousands across the country, the government is refusing to listen to the views of the people by ignoring 11,000 responses to their consultation.
He added: “We look forward to the final plan on 31 July. In our view, the judge made it very clear that the Government must meet very specific criteria in order to avoid any future legal challenge. We feel this was a clear shot across the government’s bows.”
A Defra spokesperson said: "Improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions is a priority for this government and we will continue to work towards publishing our final plan by 31 July."
ClientEarth first brought legal action against the government for breaching nitrogen dioxide limits set by European law in 2011. Legally, the government must work to bring air pollution down below these limits in the "shortest possible time".
The government published its original plan to do this in November last year but the High Court ruled that it was illegally poor and ordered ministers to come up with another one. The government then tried to delay publication of the new plan, which was due in April, citing the general election, but a judge forced it to publish it anyway.