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Lawyers are threatening action over council’s “seriously flawed” clean air plans

Environmental lawyers say timescales to tackle illegal pollution are unacceptable

Fight For Fair Air

Environmental lawyers say timescales to tackle illegal pollution are unacceptable.


An environmental law firm has warned Bristol City Council that its proposals to clean up Bristol’s air are “seriously flawed” and could trigger legal action against the council.

The announcement comes after Bristol City Council released additional details about its two potential clean air plan approaches. Neither option, which are currently open for public feedback, would achieve legal levels of pollution until at least 2028, an outcome the council itself said was ‘surprising’.

Lawyer Katie Nield says the timescales were unacceptable: “It’s not justifiable to say, ‘Well, kids for the next ten years are going to have to breathe in illegal levels of air pollution because we just need a bit of time’.”

ClientEarth, a high profile team of lawyers, previously took the UK government to court three times and won over its inaction on dangerous levels of air pollution. Judges in the high court ruled that the UK government was failing to take sufficient action to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in over 45 local authorities in line with the EU’s legally binding limits established in 2008.

Bristol City Council is now one of many local authorities around the country which have been ordered by central government to produce plans to reduce levels of NO2, 80% of which is from traffic, to legal levels. They’re now over 200 days late. ClientEarth argue that Bristol City Council is “clearly not” taking an urgent approach.

It’s quite clear where pollution is coming from in the city and clear therefore what sources need to be addressed to tackle the problem.”

“They are dragging their feet”

Poor air quality is estimated to contribute to around 300 deaths every year in Bristol and extensive health issues, while over 80% of NO2 in Bristol comes from local traffic. Bristol City Council missed the initial December 2018 deadline and is now looking to finalise its plans by December this year.

The two options now tabled are a ban on diesel vehicles entering a small central area for eight hours of the day, or a larger area which lorries, vans and taxis would be charged to enter. The council is also considering a range of non-charging measures.

ClientEarth, who are also investigating possible action in Greater Manchester, say the plans amount to too little, too late. “Although it’s rubbish that local authorities have been passed the buck, at the same time, they’ve had over two years now,” Nield told the Cable.

“They’ve missed government deadlines and they are dragging their feet and seem to be struggling to make decisions. It’s quite clear where pollution is coming from in the city and clear therefore what sources need to be addressed to tackle the problem.”

The council and the Mayor have previously said that stricter plans for a Clean Air Zone, for example one charging private cars to enter, would have an unacceptable impact on lower income Bristolians.

However, Nield argues that that should not be an excuse to delay taking action that has such harmful effects on health: “The courts have been really clear on this point, because of the public health imperative, and the harm to health that results from illegal levels of pollution,” she says.

“They’ve been clear that things like cost, or political difficulties, can’t be used as factors to justify delaying taking action and allowing illegal levels of air pollution to persist.”

The Cable understands that discussions between the council and ClientEarth are ongoing.

Heat from inside City Hall

This week another blow was dealt to the council’s plans. Bristol Green councillors argued that anyone filling out the council’s public consultation should respond ‘none of the above’ and instead demand the council should consider new options which would achieve compliance quicker.

Councillor Fi Hance said: “Instead of a false choice between two dubious options, rushed through at the last minute without evidence to support them, we urgently need new, tougher plans to clean up our air faster.”

The public consultation on clean air zone options will end next Monday (12 August).

Edited 8.8.19 to add Bristol City Council’s comments.

A Bristol City Council spokesperson said:

“The council is in the process of consulting on two options designed to lower air pollution in the shortest possible time, whilst also seeking to minimise any unacceptable, negative financial impacts for people on lower incomes. The consultation continues until 12 August and its results will be carefully considered alongside all technical information before officers make a recommendation to the Mayor and Cabinet  who will then consider how to move forward in line with our legal duties.

 “The process of modelling to see how quickly Bristol can reach compliant  levels of NO2 is very complex and depends on several variables, including specific locations, background pollution and gradients. Through each successive stage of the project our technical work has presented a more detailed and definitive picture. That is why it is not unusual for modelling to change, in order to reflect updated information and predictions. 

 “The modelling to date on the proposed options shows the majority of roads in Bristol are predicted to meet compliant levels before 2028 and 2029, but in Option 1, Park Street is predicted to hold back the compliance date, and in Option 2, two locations – Marlborough Street and Church Road – are estimated to take the longest to reach compliance.

 “The council is committed, and legally bound, to implement the option which is most likely to reduce air pollution to within complaint limits  in the shortest possible time. If an option is found which increases the speed of compliance, the council would consider the need to consult people further. It may also consider additional ways to address air quality on the streets which hold back the compliance dates, with the aim of improving the speed of compliance where possible.”

Bristol City Council spokesperson

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  • Frances Macfarlane

    I was just saying to a friend that the options aren’t a valid choice.


  • Hi Lorna,
    I have been saying, in my capacity as a City Councillor, that we have not been acting radically enough.
    Meanwhile, as we procrastinate, each day another person dies.


  • Cramming ever more people into suburbs (e.g. the 20 storey monsters by the Malago and endless overdevelopment throughout BS3) is absolutely not going to help air quality. These people inevitably bring more cars, vans, lorries and buses to areas which already have illegally high NO2 levels and dangerous levels of PM2.5.

    We desperately need to change the council’s leadership to stop the current obsession with recreating New York City on the Avon. We don’t need skyscrapers, a basketball stadium, a huge airport, an underground train system, urban gridlock and abysmal air quality thanks.


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