An environmental campaign group today told a High Court judge that ministers had "unlawfully" failed to explain Government plans to improve air quality in line with European Union (EU) legislation.
ClientEarth complained that Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman had failed to consult on proposals which demonstrated how the UK aimed to comply with EU limits on levels of nitrogen dioxide.
The charity wants Mr Justice Mitting to declare that plans set out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) do not comply with EU law and order Mrs Spelman to publish revised proposals as a consultation document.
Lawyers representing Mrs Spelman rejected ClientEarth's claims, at a High Court hearing in London. They said ministers had carried out a "proper and lawful" consultation and had not breached any duty under European law.
ClientEarth bosses said outside court that 29,000 people "died prematurely" in the UK every year because of air pollution. They said ministers were failing to tackle the UK's "illegal levels" of air pollution.
A ClientEarth spokesman said: "The legal challenge against the Secretary of State has been brought because air quality plans for 17 regions and cities (including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff) will not comply with legal limits for air quality until after 2015. The deadline for achieving these limits was January 1 2010.
"The Secretary of State is under a duty to ensure that levels of air pollution in the UK comply with limits set by EU law. Where these limits are exceeded, the Secretary of State must produce plans to ensure compliance as soon as possible."
He added: "ClientEarth is asking the court to order the Secretary of State to draw up plans that will achieve legal compliance throughout the UK by 2015, and is also asking for a declaration from the court that the Secretary of State is in breach of her legal obligations."
ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: "The Government's plans to tackle air pollution are frankly pathetic. They contain almost no new measures and show that they won't achieve air quality limits until 2025. It's nothing short of a disgrace.
"Instead of delaying action in the hope they can persuade the EU to weaken the legal limits, the Government needs to tackle this public health crisis now."
Stephen Hockman QC, for ClientEarth, told the court today that long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide could affect lung function and inflame airways.
He told the judge, in a written argument: "The Secretary of State's consultation was unlawful. The Secretary of State's duty under the directive was to prepare and consult on an air quality plan that will demonstrate how the UK will achieve compliance with the limit values by 2015.
"(She) must publish and consult on a revised plan which demonstrates how compliance with limit values will be achieved in the shortest time possible and by January 1 2015 at the latest."
Kassie Smith, for Mrs Spelman, told the court that no order was needed.
"The UK believes that it has fulfilled those obligations in the air quality plans that it submitted," Ms Smith told the judge, in a written argument. "No purpose would be served by the court making an order in the form sought."