Government bill close to £400,000 in air pollution fight against ClientEarth

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The Government has spent almost £400,000 of taxpayers' money fighting efforts to force it to tackle illegal air pollution, a freedom of information request shows.

A series of court cases brought by environmental law firm ClientEarth to make ministers take action to meet EU legal targets on air quality, have racked up legal fees and costs of more than £380,000, figures supplied to the Press Association reveal.

The figure - the equivalent of paying Government grants to support the purchase of dozens of clean electric cars - does not include the most recent court costs in the long running legal battle.

And this amount could rise further if the final plans from the Government for cleaning up air pollution, which were published last week and widely criticised as not doing enough to tackle the air pollution "public health crisis", prompt more legal action.

Environmental charity ClientEarth first launched action against the Government in 2011 over its failure to keep within European Union limits for harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide, winning rulings in both the High Court and Supreme Court.

ClientEarth launched a fresh challenge last year after it considered the plans for improving air quality that the courts had demanded the Government produce were inadequate, and won a ruling that required new plans to be published in 2017.

Despite efforts by ministers in April to delay the new draft plans because of the general election, they were published in May - with ClientEarth losing a High Court case on them in June - and the final plans were unveiled last week.

Costs to the Environment Department (Defra) of the various court cases have reached £301,279, freedom of information figures show.

In addition, Defra has been ordered to pay up to £81,834 in costs to ClientEarth.

The figures do not include costs Defra was ordered to pay in the legal fight in April, which forced ministers to publish the plans, or the most recent case costs.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: "It is a poor reflection on successive governments that they chose to spend taxpayers' money to fight court cases instead of getting on with the job of cleaning up our illegal air pollution.

"As well as the terrible health impacts on individuals, there has been a huge cost to the economy of allowing air pollution to carry on at illegal levels for several years.

"We will continue to hold the Government to account in order to protect people's health."

Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and is linked to health problems from childhood illnesses to heart disease and even dementia. 

A Government spokeswoman said: "Reducing roadside pollution is a priority for this Government - which is why we have committed £3 billion to help towns and cities take action against harmful emissions caused by dirty diesels."