“Promises are not enough”: why a court ruling shows the government cannot be trusted on air pollution

Could it be third time lucky for the campaigners battling government inertia on deadly air pollution?

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In a historic first, a High Court Judge ruled this morning that the court should effectively oversee future plans to tackle air pollution, after successive rulings have found against the UK government’s action to date.

Ministers must now require measures from 33 local authorities where pollution presently exceeds the legal limits (a further 12 were also flagged but are projected to have legal levels by the end of the year). If their responses continue to fall short, then environmental lawyers at ClientEarth, who have been prosecuting the government, will be able to bring the matter straight back to court without having to apply for judicial review.

The judge described this decision as “wholly exceptional”, yet necessary in the circumstances: "The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough... and it seems court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved.”

At a time when the Conservative Party has been touting its green credentials, the ruling is a timely reminder that words are a criminally poor substitute for action.

“Millions of people in the UK live with illegally high levels of air pollution, which results in 40,000 early deaths every year,” said the MP Mary Creagh, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, following the announcement. “The government must now use every tool in the box to clean up our choking cities.”

It is also an important victory for lawyers at ClientEarth, who have long been battling political inertia on this issue: “The problem was supposed to be cleaned up over eight years ago, and yet successive governments have failed to do enough,” said ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop.

Sadly the government’s first response to the ruling shows little sign of amending their ways and giving this issue the rigourous attention it deserves. At the afternoon’s PMQs Theresa May herself misrepresented the court judgement, saying that she was happy the court found in favour of the government on “two out of three” counts. Reader: the court did not; it was in fact the other way around.

With the estimated cost of air pollution to the UK adding up to a staggering £20bn a year, not to mention its unmeasurable cost in terms of impaired health, it is imperative the government changes its ways, and fast. In the words of Jenny Bates, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth: “Perhaps if the government spent as much time coming up with a decent air quality plan as it did briefing lawyers to claim that current plans are adequate, we may see the progress we need.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.