Damian Carrington Environment editor
Monday 23 October 2017 12.39 BST
The government spent £370,000 of taxpayers’ money unsuccessfully fighting court claims that its plans to tackle air pollution were illegally poor, a freedom of information request has revealed.
The money was spent battling two actions brought by environmental lawyers ClientEarth and included more than £90,000 in costs paid to the group after it won on both occasions. Critics said the government’s expenditure was “disgraceful” and should have been spent on cutting pollution.
Nitrogen dioxide pollution, mostly produced by diesel vehicles, has been illegally high in most urban parts of Britain since 2010. ClientEarth successfully argued that the government’s plans would not cut the toxic fumes in the “shortest possible time”, as EU law requires.
This forced ministers to produce a new plan, published in July, but this was condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors. Air pollution causes an estimated 23,500 early deaths every year from NO2, rising to 40,000 when other pollutants are considered. In September, the UN’s special rapporteur on pollution said the government was “flouting” its duty to protect the lives and health of its citizens.
Earlier in October, ClientEarth sent a legal letter demanding that the environment secretary Michael Gove sets out a range of new measures to address air pollution. If the government fails to comply with this “letter before action”, ClientEarth will issue new proceedings and ministers are likely to face a third judicial review.
“It’s disgraceful that so much taxpayers’ money has been wasted by the government trying to avoid producing a proper plan to tackle air pollution,” said Tim Farron MP, the Liberal Democrat’s environment spokesman. “This money could have been spent instead on schemes to improve air quality in our towns and cities. We need radical action now to reduce the thousands of premature deaths caused by air pollution each year.”
ClientEarth’s lawyer Alan Andrews said: “The government’s insistence on fighting us in court, rather than cleaning up our air, is baffling. The plans produced in response to two court orders show a similar reluctance to get a grip. All we’ve seen is inaction and delay.”
“The sums recovered from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are a small fraction of the costs involved in bringing these cases, which we have brought in the public interest over the course of seven years to uphold the right to breathe clean air,” Andrews said.