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High court ruling: Theresa May defends 'unlawful' air quality near schools and nurseries

Article By: Angeline Albert

Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to defend the Government’s air quality plans in PMQs - only hours after a High Court judge ruled ‘unlawful’ her Government’s failure to tackle illegal air pollution levels in 45 local authorities.

Theresa May defends Government's air quality plans during PMQs on 21 February Credit: Parliament TV

Where do the children play?

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth took the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to the High Court over high pollution levels and won its case - prompting a Labour MP to ask Theresa May how she felt about the impact polluted air was having on children’s health.

The charity ClientEarth says more than 40,000 premature deaths per year are estimated to occur in the UK, with more than 9,000 in London alone. This is the third time the Government has lost in the High Court to the charity over high pollution levels after High Court judge Mr Justice Garnham ruled in the charity’s favour on 21 February.

Hours after the court ruling, Ruth Cadbury- Labour’s MP for Brentford and Isleworth-asked Theresa May during PMQs: “What does the Prime Minister feel is worse? Losing for the third time in the High Court or 40,000 unnecessary deaths and the impact on children’s health of the UK’s unsustainable air quality?

“On Monday [19 February], children and parents at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Chiswick told me of their concerns about air pollution affecting children’s health.”

Image from Client Earth's 'Poisoned Playgrounds' campaign for better air quality in educational settings Credit: ClientEarth

In response, Theresa May told a packed House of Commons: “We’ve been taking action to improve air quality but can I just say to the honourable lady that the way she has described the court’s decision this morning I don’t think properly reflects the decision that the court has given.

“They’ve agreed that the modelling we used to support the 2017 air quality plan is sound. They have asked us to go further in areas with less severe air quality problems where we thought a pragmatic approach was appropriate, we will now formalize that. But actually, on two out of the three counts it found in the Government’s favour.”

In his ruling, Mr Justice Garnham ordered ministers to require local authorities to investigate and identify measures to tackle illegal levels of pollution in 33 towns and cities as soon as possible – as 12 of the 45 are projected to have legal levels by the end of 2018.

Air pollution has been linked to premature births and children developing smaller lungs as they grow. It can cause cancer, aggravates breathing conditions, increases the risk of asthma attacks and can cause developmental problems for children.

ClientEarth states: 'Studies have shown that the health of children living within 150 metres of illegally polluted roads can be affected by traffic-related air pollution. Even if your school is further than 150 metres from an illegally polluted road, air pollution can still impact children’s health at or on their way to school.’

Speaking outside the High Court, ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop said: “The problem was supposed to be cleaned up over eight years ago, and yet successive governments have failed to do enough.

“The people who live in areas of the countries covered by this judgment deserve to be able breathe clean air and the Government must now do all it can to make that happen quickly.”

Around 80 per cent of environmental protection laws in the UK stem from the EU. Environment secretary Michael Gove has pledged to completely phase out petrol and diesel vehicles, which are the main producers of toxic nitrogen dioxide, by 2040.

Credit: Twitter

Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley said ministers had been dragged “kicking and screaming” before the courts to answer for their air quality failures.

Last year, ClientEarth created an online postcode tool as part of its 'Poisoned Playgrounds' campaign to help parents find out whether their child’s educational setting is near a road with illegal levels of air pollution.

The charity is urging members of the public to contact their MP if they are concerned about air quality near educational settings.


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