02 June 2017

The new draft air quality plan, published on 5 May 2017, is the UK government's revised attempt at a plan for reducing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels below EU limits in the shortest possible time. The government's previous attempt was scrapped for not going far enough following a successful legal challenge by the NGO ClientEarth last year.

ClientEarth is now taking the government back to court over the inadequacy of its current proposals.

What measures does the air quality plan propose?

Media speculation prior to publication of the draft plan had suggested that we could expect to see a significant expansion in the number of mandatory clean air zones (i.e. those towns and cities where charges are imposed on vehicle entry) as well as the introduction of a wide-reaching diesel scrappage scheme. Neither is in fact reflected in the published proposals, but potential measures include:

  • charging and non-charging clean air zones at the discretion of local authorities
  • retrofitting of buses
  • financial support for alternative fuels such as electricity and hydrogen
  • new speed limits
  • eco-driving incentives
  • a targeted diesel scrappage scheme
  • increases in taxes on diesel cars and fuel
  • a car labelling scheme based on both NO2 and CO2
  • measures to tackle NO2 emissions from Medium Combustion Plants.

A key theme of the draft plan is the placing of the burden of taking steps to achieve air quality improvements on local authorities.

Reaction to the air quality plan

The Mayor of London has commented that the draft plan is "toothless and woefully inadequate" while the founder and chief executive of ClientEarth, James Thornton, condemned the plan as "even worse than the previous effort, which has already been ruled illegal by the high court"

ClientEarth launches legal challenge

ClientEarth announced on 31 May 2017 that it would be launching a fresh legal challenge, asking the High Court to consider the "major flaws" in the draft plan and asserting that the plan does not go far enough to meet the government's legal obligations. James Thornton commented that "these are plans for more plans, what we need are plans for action". 

This is the third time that ClientEarth has taken the government to court over the adequacy of various iterations of its plans for improving air quality. The first two rounds of the legal tussle went decidedly to ClientEarth. How this third challenge will affect the contents of the final new plan (to be published by the end of July 2017) remains to be seen. 

However, we can expect close scrutiny of both the draft plan and the legal process by the media and public, especially in light of the upcoming General Election.

What happens next?

The government's consultation on its draft plan will continue to run in parallel with this legal challenge and remains open until 15 June 2017. Consultation responses can be provided online.

The measures adopted under the final air quality plan will have consequences for many of our sectors, including real estate, energy, transport, infrastructure and the public sector. Our environmental law specialists have been watching developments and providing sector briefings throughout this process. For more information please contact Michael Barlow or your usual Burges Salmon contact. 

Key contact

Michael Barlow

Michael Barlow Partner

  • Head of Environment
  • Head of Water
  • Head of ESG

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