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Court orders 33 more councils to draw up air quality plans


Andrew Forster
05 March 2018

Thirty-three more local authorities in England will have to study ways to ensure their air quality is brought to within legal limits, following a High Court ruling last week. 

The authorities covered by the ruling are: Portsmouth; Wakefield; Bournemouth; Bradford; Plymouth; Solihull; Wolverhampton; Bolsover; Leicester; Liverpool; Newcastle-under-Lyme; Oldham; Sandwell; Stoke-on-Trent; Walsall; Poole; Burnley; Peterborough; Reading; Sefton; South Gloucestershire; Basingstoke and Deane; Blaby; Calderdale; Cheltenham; Dudley; Kirklees; South Tyneside; Southend; Ashfield; Broxbourne; Oxford; and Sunderland.

Environmental lawyers Client Earth brought the case against the UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last July (LTT 04 Aug 17).

The Government’s plan required 23 local authorities representing areas with the greatest problem, i.e. expected to exceed EUnitrogen dioxide limit values beyond the next three or four years, to prepare action plans to achieve compliance in the “shortest possible time”. Initial plans must be prepared by the end of March and final plans by the end of December.

These 23 were in addition to five cities (Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton) that the Government had previously ordered to prepare plans for Clean Air Zones (CAZs) because of their difficulty achieving compliance. They must submit full business cases to ministers by 15 September. The Government will use ministerial directions to direct each of the five to implement its plan once approved.

A further 45 local authorities  were identified in the plan as currently being in breach of the limit value but were expected to achieve compliance by 2021. 

The Government did not require these authorities to prepare local plans or conduct feasibility studies into actions benchmarked against a charging CAZ. The judge, Mr Justice Garnham, acknowledged that the Government’s rationale was that the areas would become compliant within the period of three years that it would take to design, install and bring into operation a charging Clean Air Zone. 

Garnham ruled, however, that the Government was still required to ensure that in these 45 areas compliance was achieved as soon as possible. 

Of the 45, the Government expects 12 to achieve compliance with the EUlimit value in 2018. Garnham’s ruling therefore relates to the remaining 33. He notes that environment minister Thérèse Coffey wrote to the 33 last November encouraging them to bid for the annual air quality grant; stressing the importance of taking action to achieve compliance in the shortest time possible; offering training and materials; and requesting further information on the steps they are taking to achieve compliance.

Said Garnham: “In effect, these local authorities are being urged and encouraged to come up with proposals to improve air quality over the next three years but are not being required to do so. In my judgment, that sort of exhortation is not sufficient. Polite letters from the Government urging additional steps by individual local authorities are not enough. 

“Whilst I see no obligation on the Secretary of State to impose legal directions on local authorities covering every stage in the process of achieving compliance, in my view the failure to make mandatory any step in the case of the 45 means that the Government cannot show either that it is taking steps to ‘ensure’ compliance or, as a result, that compliance is ‘likely’.” 

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