UK government claims “strong public interest” in keeping air quality plans secret

Campaigners have criticised the UK government for refusing to share details of how they intend to meet EU air quality limits in towns and cities across the country.

Together with partner organisations across Europe, the EEB requested the publication of documents setting out governments plans bring levels of air pollution in their cities into line with EU law.

Yet the UK government argued that there was “…there is a strong public interest in withholding the information because its disclosure would undermine the UK Government’s position in discussions with the European Commission and has the potential to prejudice possible legal proceedings between the UK and the European Commission“.

Margherita Tolotto, the EEB’s Air Quality Policy Officer who submitted the requests, told META that the UK government’s position was astonishing and that they were confusing the government’s own selfish interest with the general interest of the UK public:

“The Commission has been forced to act because of the UK government’s failure to deliver EU protections on air quality. It is the Commission that is acting in the interests of people still breathing dangerously polluted air in towns and cities across the UK.”

Ugo Taddei, a lawyer at Client Earth – the environmental law group that has defeated UK government in air pollution cases on three occasions – echoed Tolotto’s comments:

“People in the UK have a clear right to know what action the government is taking to protect their health and their right to breathe clean air.”

Campaigners sent a series of access to information requests to get hold of documents submitted by the nine countries currently facing further legal action for their failure to improve air. Ministers from these countries were summoned to Brussels in January to explain their failure.

Legal limits for either nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or particulate matter (PM) have been breached in urban areas in the nine countries for a number of years. France and Italy have received final warnings for both pollutants.

On Monday, European Commissioner Karmenu Vella confirmed to the European Parliament that he would be recommending a number of governments be sent to Europe’s top court for their consistent failure.

While some countries refused to share the information, Germany, France, Italy and Slovakia demonstrated a commitment to transparency by ensuring the documents were made available.

However, while proposals from Germany to provide free pubic transport in cities with air pollution problems were welcomed by campaigners when they made the news earlier this year, other plans were dismissed as too vague or lacking the urgency required to deal with the crisis Europe is facing.

European air pollution limits are currently being broken in 130 cities in 23 of the 28 member states and cases have already been successfully brought against Poland and Bulgaria. Earlier this month Commissioner Vella told journalists that improvements in air quality had already been seen since the first ruling against Bulgaria.

Tolotto described the contents of the plans that had been released as “too little, too late” but was keen to emphasise the need proposals to be fully transparent and open to scrutiny from interested parties. She said:

Public health decisions should be based on publicly available information.”

An announcement about which countries will be sent to court is expected from the Commission next month.