The Supreme Court today ordered the UK government to take ‘immediate action’ to prepare a detailed plan of how it intends to cut illegal levels of air pollution in 16 cities and regions throughout Britain.

Giving judgment in R (on the application of ClientEarth) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the court made it clear that the next government, ‘whatever its political complexion’, would be legally bound by its ruling that a comprehensive plan for cutting levels of nitrogen dioxide in polluted areas must be submitted by 31 December 2015. 

The case concerned the UK government’s obligations under the EU’s 2008 Air Quality Directive, which set a deadline of 2010 to comply with limits on levels of nitrogen dioxide. Articles 22 and 23 of the directive granted a five-year postponement – on condition that the government creates an air quality plan for the affected areas and that the ‘exceedance period can be kept as short as possible’.

The UK government claimed that limits relating to 16 areas in the UK, including Greater London, could not be realistically met by 2015 and did not apply for an extension. It said air quality plans submitted to the European Commission under article 23 of the directive fulfilled requirements that the exceedance periods be kept as short as possible.

In 2011, ClientEarth, an environmental law activist group, brought a claim for judicial review of the air quality plans, launching a case that reached the Court of Appeal in 2012, a first Supreme Court hearing in 2013, a Court of Justice of the European Union ruling in 2014 and then a second hearing, on 16 April 2015, in the Supreme Court.

In today’s judgment, five justices unanimously granted ClientEarth’s appeal to the extent that it grants a declaration that there has been a breach of the Air Quality Directive. It added that proceedings are stayed whilst other issues concerning the directive are referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union. 

It ruled that: ‘The new government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue. The only realistic way to achieve this is a mandatory order requiring new plans… to be prepared within a defined timetable.’

ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said: ‘We brought our case because we have a right to breathe clean air and today the Supreme Court upheld that right. The next government, regardless of which political parties take power, is now legally bound to take urgent action on this public health crisis.’

Some 29,000 people die prematurely in the UK every year as a result of air pollution, according to a 2010 report by the UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants.