Welsh Government to Appear in Court to Defend Lack of Plan to Tackle Illegal Air Pollution

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The lush valleys of the Welsh countryside are not the typical landscape associated with the alarming issue of air pollution. And yet, a small town in south Wales has been named the worst pollution spot in the UK outside of London. In Wales, as in many other places in the UK, illegal levels of air pollution have been recorded since 2010.

On Thursday, the Welsh Government will appear in court as a defendant alongside the UK government in a case challenging the lack of plan to tackle illegal levels of air pollution across the country.

The case is part of legal firm ClientEarth’s third judicial review against the UK government over its failure to come up with an adequate and robust plan to improve air quality in compliance with existing EU laws.

Air pollution is believed to contribute to 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK according to a report published last year by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics.

Experts looked at the lifelong impact of air pollution and concluded it had an impact on people throughout their life and played a role in the development of chronic conditions such as cancer, asthma, heart disease, and neurological changes linked to dementia.

Air pollution in court

Concerns over public health have been a key argument in bringing the issue of air pollution in front of UK courts. ClientEarth’s CEO James Thornton accused both the UK and Welsh governments of “failing to protect people’s health”, in a statement to DeSmog UK ahead of Thursday’s hearing.  

In this latest case, the law firm has accused the Welsh government of failing to produce any concrete plans to improve air quality “as soon as possible”.

Although the UK government is responsible to ensure all parts of the UK are compliant with EU legislation, air pollution is also a devolved matter with each country’s government expected to produce their own plan to tackle the issue.

ClientEarth will argue that the UK government’s latest air quality action plan adopted in July failed to require the Welsh government to take any action to bring down illegal levels of air pollution.  Legal representatives for both governments are therefore expected to appear on the defendant’s bench.

The UK government’s air quality plan published in July included a section on Wales. It mentioned the launch of a consultation over a proposal for a clean air zone framework and admitted “other action” will be required where these zones are not appropriate, such as in rural areas.

But a spokesman for ClientEarth described the UK government’s action plan as “plans for further plans” rather than a clear pathway for action.

For too long the people of Wales have been suffering due to their [government’s] lack of decision on how to tackle air pollution” – Joseph Carter, British Lung Foundation & Healthy Air Cymru

By calling for a judicial review, ClientEarth is hoping for the court to declare the plan unlawful and order both the UK and Welsh governments to “urgently” publish additional measures to comply with air pollution laws.

Nitrogen dioxide limits were introduced in EU law in 1999 with the aim of achieving the targets by 2010. But since then, illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide have been recorded in towns and cities across the UK, with ClientEarth identifying the cause for the pollution as “coming mostly from diesel vehicles”.

The Welsh plan

The Welsh government’s failure to come up with an adequate plan to tackle air pollution is expected to be a significant focus of Thursday’s legal challenge.

The case is anticipated to shine light on the issue of air pollution in Wales, which campaigners say had until recently been side-lined as a matter unique to urban hubs such as London.

Healthy Air Cymru, a consortium of organisations working to ensure people do not develop health conditions because of air pollution, welcomed ClientEarth’s legal challenge.

The groups — which includes ClientEarth along with the British Lung Foundation, British Heart Foundation, Friends of the Earth Cymru, the Institute for Welsh Affairs, Living Streets, Public Health Wales, the Royal College of Physicians, Sustrans Cymru and Swansea University — are calling on Welsh lawmakers to take advantage of devolved solutions to tackle the issue.  

Joseph Carter, head of the British Lung Foundation and chair of Healthy Air Cymru, said in a statement: “For too long the people of Wales have been suffering due to their [government’s] lack of decision on how to tackle air pollution”.

Speaking to DeSmog UK, Carter described a “diverse” pollution problem across Wales with hotspots linked to urban residential areas in Cardiff and Swansea and heavy industry such steelworks in Port Talbot. Carter also pointed out rural areas were not all spared by the problem, with the example of Crumlin, in south Wales, named in August as an area with the worst air quality in the UK outside of London.


Source: Wales Airborne Pollution Map

Carter praised the case as “putting the spotlight on the Welsh government to act on the issue”. “In the past, we have been concerned the Welsh government was hiding behind the UK government and Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) guidelines, waiting for action coming from them,” he said.

It is only recently that air pollution in Wales came garnered public attention, Carter added. “This was not on the agenda during the Welsh Assembly election in 2016 but since then it has been increasingly seen as more than just a London issue.”

Shortly after ClientEarth lodged its judicial review, the Welsh government announced it will publish a clean air plan for Wales in 2018. This is expected to include guidelines to set-up clean air zones and improve local reporting on air quality and establish a centre to monitor specific hotspots.

Although Carter welcomed the announcement, he said there were no details on what the proposal would mean in practice, how it will be financed and when it will be implemented.

It is time for the Welsh government to face its responsibility and step up to the task,” he said.

Third time lucky?

ClientEarth’s latest legal case is also expected to focus on policy gaps to reduce air pollution across the country.

The firm accused the UK government of backtracking on previous commitments to order five cities, including Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton, to introduce clean air zones by 2020 and on failing to require action by 45 local authorities in England with illegal levels of air pollution.

ClientEarth has called on authorities to discourage the most polluting vehicles from entering these areas as a way to rapidly bring down air pollution.


Photo: Jonathan Billinger via wikimedia | CC2.0

But this is not the first time the legal firm will be presenting its case in front of UK courts. Indeed, ClientEarth successfully took the UK government to court over its air quality plan twice before.

In April 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the UK government to produce plans to bring air pollution down to legal levels as soon as possible. The resulting plans were declared illegal by the High Court in November 2016 and ministers were told to come up with yet new plans. These latest plans published in July are now the subject of this third legal action.  

The judgement from the court case could be made as soon as Thursday afternoon.

The Welsh government declined to comment on the story ahead of the case, but told DeSmog UK:

It would not be appropriate for us to comment on ClientEarth’s case before we have received the outcome of the court hearing.

We have already highlighted our commitment to working across government to improve air quality in Wales.

The UK government declined to comment on the story.

Photo: Kevin Corcoran via wikimedia | CC2.0

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