Defra to face double challenge over air quality

The UK government and in particular its Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is facing challenges over air quality policy on two fronts.

The activist organisation ClientEarth is in the process of submitting an appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court of Justice over Defra’s plans to meet European Union air quality targets.

And, Defra’s moves to reduce the threat of infraction over air quality by the EU are to be opposed by Green MEPs.

Speaking at a conference in London last weekend on air quality, Alan Andrews of ClientEarth explained the history of the organisation’s judicial challenge against Defra (see Air Quality News story)

Speakers at the London event on air quality organised by www.cleanairuk.org: (l-r), coordinator Andrew Wood; Alan Andrews, ClientEarth; Dr Ian Mudway, King’s College; Murad Qureshi, London Assembly; and Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth

He said that the challenge focused on the UK meeting the requirements of the Air Quality Directive and the UK’s failure to have plans to meet NO2 limits by 2015.Mr Andrews said: “When the Government started this in 2010, it knew the hourly limit for NO2 was breached in the first three weeks of 2010 and it always knew there wasn’t a London plan. When we received a copy of the government’s plans, in 43 zones, 40 were in breach in 2010 and 17 would not achieve compliance until after 2015, most 2020.”

Breach

Two court actions had since taken place and while ClientEarth had lost and the UK had not been forced to speed up plans to meet the emission limits, Mr Andrews said ClientEarth “had scored an important victory as the government admitted it was in breach of European regulations.”

And, Mr Andrews said that he was “really disappointed that the Court of Appeal hearing never addressed the issue of what does the shortest time as possible mean. The case lives on, all be it on life support. Next week we will be filing an application to the Supreme Court and we want it referred to the European Court of Justice.”

Mr Andrews added that ClientEarth had recently received a letter from the European Commission which he said expressed concern that the national courts in the UK were not willing to enforce European legislation.

He continued: “The government have got their heads in the sand when it comes to air pollution. They don’t want to tackle the problem, they don’t want to spend any money in the current climate which is very disappointing compared with the health risks involved. We have a right to clean air, even though it is a flimsy right which is very much in its infancy.”

Second challenge

The second challenge to the UK government is likely to be lead by the Green MEPs. They have pledged to fight moves by the UK in its Red Tape Challenge programme to get amendments to the Air Quality Directive which could mean that targets for reduction of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) might be cut.

In its Red Tape Challenge proposals (published in March 2012), Defra said under the air quality heading that “Working in partnership with other Member States, we will also use the European Commission review of air quality legislation, expected in 2013, to seek: Amendments to the Air Quality Directive which reduce the infraction risk faced by most Member States, especially in relation to nitrogen dioxide provisions.”

Speaking at the London conference, Keith Taylor, Green MEP for south east England said: “This is a truly awful part of the Red Tape Challenge. I will be working with my colleagues in the Green Party to make this less worse.”

Mr Andrews, of ClientEarth, commented: “A second front has opened up in the government’s Red Tape Challenge and Defra’s part which says it wants to reduce the infraction risk of challenge.

“This has set alarm bells ringing, are they actually going to lower the limits? Our attention has to shift to Brussels. Probably I will be moving myself to Brussels next year to try to work with the European Parliament and the Commission on this.”

Public health issue

Murad Qureshi, London Assembly Member and chair of the London Assembly health and environment committee told the meeting that the government “really needed to grapple with this issue. I can’t think of a bigger public health issue after smoking than air quality.

“Essentially what we are dealing with is health effects and that people’s life expectancies are reduced. It is used as a major indicator of health in the developing world and we should not lose sight of that here.”

And, reflecting on the two challenges facing Defra, Mr Qureshi said: “We have Defra problems at secretary of state level, I do not believe Caroline Spelman has got a handle on this. There has not been any aspiration or indication that they would like to go beyond EU limits.”