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Environmental lawyers fire warning to councils on legal risk of air pollution “inaction”

Environmental law charity ClientEarth has warned 38 local authorities in England and Wales of the legal risk of inaction on air pollution.

ClientEarth has sent the councils a briefing, which outlines councils’ responsibilities and warns that if their final proposals do not satisfy the necessary legal requirements, they will be open to legal challenge. 

The organisation, which won three legal cases against the UK government over illegal levels of air pollution across the country, said it was “concerned by the slew of missed deadlines and ineffective measures put forward by local authorities”.

It said it had not ruled out further legal action to tackle toxic air in towns and cities across the country, claiming that “the lack of meaningful progress on the issue is proof of the government’s flawed approach of passing the buck to ill-equipped local authorities”.

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ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield said: “We are extremely concerned, given the urgency of the situation, at the glacial progress of action from local authorities. Judging by what they are telling residents, many have missed government deadlines to submit plans and some have consulted on potentially legally compliant action before scaling back proposals and delaying decisions.”

The organisation said many local authorities had failed to meet ministerial deadlines for publishing their final plans.

Nield added: “The courts have been clear that the UK Government is obliged to ensure plans are put in place as soon as can be, but instead ministers seem to be setting deadlines and simply watching them sail past.

“It is now almost a decade since legal limits came into place and they are still being broken in large parts of the country. Every week that goes by without action is another week where people are breathing in harmful air pollution which damages their health. This is particularly true of vulnerable groups like children. 

“Aside from the legal situation, this is a moral failure from politicians at all levels. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the central government to sort this out but local authorities should not be using government inaction as an excuse not to do all they can to protect people from breathing dirty air.”

Local authorities ClientEarth has written to:

The following five were those originally mandated to come up with business plans for clean air zones after ClientEarth’s first case concluded in 2015:

  1. Derby City Council
  2. Leeds City Council
  3. Birmingham City Council
  4. Nottingham City Council
  5. Southampton City Council

The following set of 23 were ordered to come up with plans after ClientEarth’s second case:

  1. Basildon District Council
  2. Bath & North East Somerset Council
  3. Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council
  4. Bristol City Council
  5. Bury Metropolitan Borough Council
  6. Coventry City Council
  7. Fareham Borough Council
  8. Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council
  9. Guildford Borough Council
  10. Manchester City Council
  11. Middlesbrough Borough Council
  12. New Forest District Council
  13. Newcastle City Council
  14. North Tyneside Council
  15. Rochford District Council 
  16. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council
  17. Rushmoor Borough Council
  18. Salford Metropolitan Borough Council
  19. Sheffield City Council
  20. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council
  21. Surrey Heath District Council
  22. Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council
  23. Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council

The next eight are those which produced plans and found that air pollution in their area was worse than first thought, so now have a further deadline later this year to produce plans:

  1. Bolsover District Council
  2. City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council
  3. Broxbourne Borough Council
  4. Leicester City Council
  5. Liverpool City Council
  6. Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council
  7. Portsmouth City Council
  8. Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Two Welsh councils following ClientEarth’s third case, which concluded last year and included the Welsh government:

  1. Cardiff City Council 
  2. Caerphilly County Borough Council

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