THE UK’s highest court warned yesterday ministers could face “immediate” legal action over breaches of European air-quality standards in Glasgow and more than a dozen other areas.
Judges at the Supreme Court ruled that the UK government had failed in its duty to protect people from the potentially deadly effects of air pollution.
The court concluded that “the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level” in response to excessive levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide.
Judges added that before deciding whether to take further action to enforce the law, they would seek advice on legal points from the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The case centres on the failure of the UK government to submit plans to the European Commission (EC) setting out how it will meet failed 2010 targets by an extended deadline of January 2015.
Environmental campaigner group ClientEarth believes Westminster, which also makes applications on behalf of Scotland, must prepare an air-quality plan which complies with a European Commission directive within two years.
Nitrogen dioxide levels in Glasgow, which is hosting the Commonwealth Games next year, have been recorded at more than twice the legal European limit of 40 micrograms per cubic metre, reaching 90.6.
ClientEarth hailed the decision a key victory in the ongoing dispute.
ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: “For too long, government has got away with failing to protect the public’s health from air pollution, and we have the right to take them to court to demand action.
“Our government are lobbying in Brussels to try to weaken current air-quality laws instead of coming up with an ambitious new plan to clean up the dirty diesel vehicles which are choking our towns and cities.”
Across the UK, air pollution causes about 29,000 early deaths each year through heart attacks, strokes and respiratory diseases.
Friends of the Earth (FoE) Scotland said the court’s decision should serve as a wake-up call.
FoE Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon said: “I think this ruling is a really key step forward. With the Commonwealth Games coming to Glasgow next year, this should help concentrate minds both in terms of solutions and potential problems as many more people come to the city.
“We are supposed to be seeing low-emission zones around Commonwealth Games areas, which are something that would help across Scotland.
“But to make a real difference you have to have less cars and more people on public transport and walking or cycling.”
The EC offered governments who were not going to meet the 2010 deadline a chance to apply for an extension until 2015 and submit an air-quality plan outlining how they would meet the targets by then.
UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson argued that there was no legal obligation to do so.
The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said yesterday it was considering the Supreme Court judgment but defended its stance.
A spokeswoman said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and almost all of the UK meets EU air-quality limits for all pollutants.”
The EC has previously warned that the failure to apply could result in a multi-million-pound fine for the UK.
A report last year rated Glasgow as the most polluted city in the UK for traffic-related emissions.