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Diesel drivers could face charges to drive in city centres after government suffer legal setback over air quality

Owners of polluting diesel vehicles could soon have to pay charges to drive in many UK city centres, after the government were forced to accept in the high court today (Wednesday 2 November) that the measures it has in place to lower air pollution were so ineffective they actually broke the law.

The growing problem of air quality across Britain is said to cause 50,000 early deaths every year, and ministers are now expected to put forward new initiatives to improve the air quality at a faster rate.

Speaking in parliament today about the high court ruling, prime minister Theresa May indicated the government will be focusing on air quality as a high priority, saying: “There is more to do and we will do it.”

The most likely measure the government is expected to consider is to deter polluting diesel vehicles from driving in designated ‘clean air zones’ in urban and city centres by using charges. Such a scheme is expected to be in place in London next year and could expand to Birmingham and other major cities in 2018.

Diesel vehicles are expected to be targeted with deterrents such as charges as they produce more Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), the pollutant at the centre of the ongoing legal case which has been at illegal levels across almost all of the country’s air quality zones since 2010.

EU law currently requires the government to reduce the illegal levels of pollution in the ‘shortest possible time’ but campaign group ClientEarth, which brought the case to the high court, have argued that the so far the governments plans have ignored many measures that could help to improve the air quality.

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Mr Justice Garnham agreed with them in the high court on Wednesday, saying that it was “remarkable” that government ministers were aware they were relying on over-optimistic pollution data based on unreliable lab tests but proceeded regardless. He also stated that the law requiring the protection of public health comes before the expected cost of implementing extra measures, saying: “I reject any suggestion that the state can have any regard to cost.”

One of the measures ClientEarth say the government could have implemented by now is to charge diesel vehicles to drive in clean air zones. Documents revealed during the high court case suggested the Treasury had blocked the initial plans to implement such a scheme due to concerns of the political impact of angering motorists.

It was also revealed that the Treasury had rejected proposals to encourage the purchase of lower-polluting vehicles by changing vehicle excise duty rates, as well as a scrappage scheme for older diesel vehicles.

During today’s Prime Ministers Questions in parliament, Theresa May said: “We now recognise that Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has to look at the judgment made by the courts and we now have to look again at the proposals we will bring forward. Nobody in this house doubts the importance of the issue of air quality.”

As well as potentially leading to new charges for diesel drivers, today’s court ruling is also a blow for the proposed new runway at Heathrow. The approval of the airport expansion was dependent on the government’s ability to tackle national air pollution levels and meet legal requirements on air quality. The Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: “This ruling deals a huge blow to May’s reckless Heathrow expansion plans. The government has already illegally delayed meeting EU pollution limits until 2025 – building a third runway would make the situation even worse.”