Right to fresh air to be decided by Supreme Court

The hearing before five Supreme Court justices in London follows a European court ruling last year. Picture: PA
The hearing before five Supreme Court justices in London follows a European court ruling last year. Picture: PA
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CAMPAIGNERS have asked the UK’s highest court to order the government to produce a new plan for reducing levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air.

They have urged five Supreme Court justices in London to direct that the plan should be produced within three months.

Nitrogen dioxide pollution causes early deaths

Ben Jaffey

Ben Jaffey, representing environmental campaign group ClientEarth in its case against the environment, food and rural affairs secretary, told the judges at a hearing that only such enforcement action by the court would provide “an effective remedy” for the “ongoing breach” by the UK of European Union law on limits for the pollutant.

The barrister told the court the orders it was being asked to make would “ensure that the secretary of state will implement measures that will cure the ongoing breach of EU law”.

The appeal before the panel of justices, headed by Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger, concerned the right that is given to people by an EU air quality ­directive “to air that does not seriously damage health”.

Mr Jaffey said: “The main atmospheric source of nitrogen dioxide is road traffic, particularly from diesel vehicles.

“Exposure to nitrogen dioxide pollution causes early deaths, hospital admissions and ill-health, particularly from respiratory illness.”

He added: “The result is substantial numbers of avoidable illnesses and deaths.”

In May 2013, the Supreme Court granted ClientEarth a declaration that the UK was in breach of its obligations under the directive over nitrogen dioxide levels. The case then went to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) for determination of “difficult” issues of European law.

The action has returned to the Supreme Court for the justices to rule on issues arising out of findings made by the court in Europe last November.

ClientEarth and the secretary of state are described as taking “different views” on the interpretation of the CJEU judgment.

Before the hearing ClientEarth said it would “call on the Supreme Court to order the government to produce a new plan which will deliver urgent cuts to the illegal levels of air pollution in towns and cities across the UK”.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is urging the court to “get tough” on air pollution and said it “must force the UK government to speed up drastically its plans to improve UK air quality in order to protect the nation’s hearts from the adverse effects of air pollution”.

The BHF says people with heart conditions are vulnerable to air pollution as it can make existing conditions worse and increase the risk of a heart attack. BHF-funded research from Edinburgh University has shown exposure to air pollution increases risk of being taken to hospital or death from stroke.

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