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“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?

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.

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.