The UK government has lodged official air quality data with the European Commission, confirming it has made little progress in reducing the number if illegally polluted regions across the UK.
The government was ordered by the courts 18 months ago to take urgent action to bring the UK into line with EU air quality standards.
But an analysis of the latest official data carried out by ClientEarth, the law firm that led the successful legal action against the government over its air quality policies, today revealed that at the end of 2016 the UK still had the same number of zones with illegal air pollution as 2015, despite being under a Supreme Court order at the time to reduce the number as soon as possible.
The Defra figures confirm that as of the end of 2016 37 out of 43 zones are in breach of EU pollution limits.
ClientEarth said some areas saw air pollution rise slightly over the four year period covered by the data. For example, Bristol, Portsmouth and Teeside all saw air quality deteriorate.
This summer the government published a second air quality plan, after its first version was deemed inadequate by the courts. The plan sets a target to end the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2040 and requires local authorities to introduce new clean air zones.
However, critics said the plan was underpowered and did not do enough to tackle the causes of air pollution in many urban centres.
James Thornton, CEO at ClientEarth, said the latest statistics “show how ministers are failing to protect people from air pollution which is blighting the lives of thousands of people across the country”.
“We’re deeply saddened to see how little progress was made last year and we will keep up the pressure to tackle this public health crisis, so that all of us – particularly young children – are protected from harmful pollution,” he said in a statement.
A Defra spokeswoman said the government was taking urgent action to tackle air pollution. “We have put in place a £3bn plan to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions,” she said. “We will also end the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, and next year we will publish a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution.”
Separately, there were further signs air quality could be enhanced in the coming years thanks to a sharp slowdown in the sale of new diesel cars, which have been identified as one of the main sources of air pollution.
New figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) today confirmed car registrations dropped 9.3 per cent in September with sales of diesel cars falling 21.7 per cent.
The on-going slowdown in diesel sales could deliver air quality benefits, but the SMMT warned the move away from diesel could mean average carbon emissions from new vehicles rise for the first time since records began in 2000.