Ministers admit pollution breach at ClientEarth High Court hearing


Ministers today admitted breaching European Union (EU) pollution legislation - but a judge said the problem should not be solved in a British court.

Lawyers representing Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman accepted that the Government had failed to meet European law obligations on air quality - during a High Court battle with environmental campaign group ClientEarth in London.

Judge Mr Justice Mitting said any enforcement action was a matter for the European Commission.

He refused to make any declaration, or to order Mrs Spelman to spell out plans for cutting pollution levels.

The judge said such a move would raise "serious political and economic questions" and courts had traditionally been wary of entering areas of "political debate".

ClientEarth had complained that Mrs 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 asked the judge to declare that plans set out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) did not comply with EU law and order Mrs Spelman to publish revised proposals.

Government lawyers contested the claim and said no High Court order was needed.

Mr Justice Mitting said a lawyer had conceded that "the Government is in breach of obligations" but said he would not make any "mandatory order".

He said the Government could admit the breach and "leave it to the (European) Commission to take whatever action is right in enforcement".

"Such a mandatory order ... would raise serious political and economic questions which are simply not for a judge," added the judge.

"Courts have traditionally been wary of entering this area of political debate - for good reason."

Mr Justice Mitting pronounced today's legal battle a "draw" and said costs should be shared.

He said Defra had conceded that it was in breach of obligations but ClientEarth had not won any declaration or order.

"The Government did admit rather more than it had - that it is in breach - but the claimants have not succeeded," said the judge, when deciding who should pay legal bills. "A draw."

Stephen Hockman QC, for ClientEarth, told the court that the charity had achieved something and said: "The Government is in breach of its obligations under European law in relation to air quality."

He added: "Although we have lost, it was a reasonable case to advance."

ClientEarth bosses said before the hearing 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 (asked) 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."