Government's bid to delay publishing toxic air plan is blocked by High Court

Francesca Gillett
Smog in east London: Jeremy Selwyn

An attempt by the Government to delay publishing its plans to tackle toxic air until after the General Election has failed at London’s High Court.

The Government’s lawyers argued that publishing the air pollution report would drop a “controversial bomb” into the local and national elections.

Ministers had until 4pm on Monday to set out its draft plans to cut illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution after a court ruled last year that its current plans to meet EU-set air quality limits were inadequate.

But just days before the deadline, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) applied to postpone publication of the draft clean air plan until after the June 8 poll.

The case went to the High Court and on Thursday a judge rejected the Government’s bid.

Mr Justice Garnham said the report must now be published on May 9 after the local government elections which are on May 4.

Air pollution over the capital. (PA)

Defra said a delay was necessary in order to comply with "purdah" rules on government announcements during the election period.

James Eadie QC said that the application was made by the Government with considerable reluctance and was not “some sort of guise or demonstration of lack of commitment to improving air quality”.

Limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were introduced by EU law in 1999, and were to be achieved by 2010.

Air pollution is linked to an estimated 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and some 37 out of 43 regions of the country are in breach of legal limits for nitrogen dioxide.

Toxic air: London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo met to talk about air pollution. (REUTERS)

Following the court decision, campaigners called for urgent, ambitious action to clean up the UK's air.

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: "The nation's dirty air is one of the most important public health issues in recent times, and the High Court's decision recognises the need to urgently tackle this crisis.

"Toxic air left unchecked will lead to a rising tide of ill health for everyone, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Children, people with a lung condition and the elderly will be hit hardest."

"Government must now deliver ambitious plans to clean up the air we breathe."

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, accused Government ministers of having "deliberately used the election as a smokescreen to hold back their plan", instead of taking immediate action to protect the health of the public.

"I hope that after this appalling delay, this Government delivers a strong plan to finally get a grip on this issue and urgently introduces a diesel scrappage fund to rid our streets of the dirtiest cars, and provide financial incentives to encourage people to buy the cleanest vehicles," he said.