Defra seeks extended deadline for air quality plan

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has applied for a last minute extension to the deadline for its revised Air Quality Plan – which had been due out for consultation today (24 April).

Today’s publication would have been the third version of the plan: the government was ordered to quash its Air Quality Plan for the second time in 18 months in a High Court case led by the environmental campaign group ClientEarth last November.

The High Court ordered Defra to produce a final Air Quality Plan by July 2017

The Plan, which itself was re-drawn after an initial challenge by ClientEarth in 2015, was deemed ‘too optimistic’ in its modelling of future nitrogen dioxide emissions by presiding judge Mr Justice Garnham. The Judge ruled that Defra had taken ‘minimum’ steps to achieve compliance with EU-set limits on NO2 by 2020.

Following the case, Defra was set a timetable to publish a draft of the new plan for consultation by 4pm today, with the final version due out by the end of July (see airqualitynews.com story).

However, following the government’s announcement last week that it is to hold a snap General Election on June 8, timing of the publication of the new plan has been cast into doubt, with pre-election ‘purdah’ rules cited as preventing publication.

Delay

The government is seeking to delay publication of the draft plan until after the General Election on 8 June. A spokeswoman for Defra said that the government is seeking a revised deadline to comply with “pre-election proprietary rules” – with the High Court expected to make a decision on the application later today.

Guidance on General Election rules published in the lead up to the 2015 General Election state that in general, consultations should not be launched during the Election period.

However, if there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ where launching a consultation is considered essential – for example in safeguarding public health – permission is required from the Cabinet Office to hold the consultation.

The rules also state that if a consultation is ongoing at the time Parliament dissolves, it should continue as normal.

James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth – the chief claimant in the case against the government, said that the organisation is considering its response to the application, which was lodged late on Friday (April 21).

ClientEarth is seeking to force the government to publish its proposals without delay. Mr Thornton said: “The unacceptable last minute nature of the government’s application late on Friday night, after the court had closed, has meant that we have spent the weekend considering our response.

“We are still examining our next steps. This is a question of public health and not of politics and for that reason we believe that the plans should be put in place without delay.

“Whichever party ends up in power after the June the 8th will need this Air Quality Plan to begin finally to tackle our illegal levels of pollution and prevent further illness and early deaths from poisonous toxins in the air we breathe. The government has had five months to draft this plan and it should be published.”