A bid by the Government to delay publishing its plans to tackle illegal air pollution until after the General Election has failed at the High Court.
Mr Justice Garnham said a draft plan must be published the day after the local government elections on May 4 with the September date for publication of the final plan unchanged.
Earlier this week, the Tories were condemned for refusing to publish the long-awaited plan. Government lawyers argued the publication would drop a “controversial bomb” into the mix of local and national elections.
Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom had told MPs her proposals for tackling nitrogen dioxide levels would not released until after the election – despite the Government being ordered by the High Court to publish it by 4pm that afternoon.
Leadsom claimed the plan has been written, but was being held back as it would breach rules on Government activity – known as purdah – in the run up to the local and general election.
The High Court ruled in November the Government’s plan for tackling air pollution – which is believed to be responsible for 40,000 unexplained deaths a year – was so bad it was actually illegal.
On Thursday in London, the judge rejected the Government’s application.
He said that the draft plan must be published on May 9 to allow for any changes following the local government elections which take place on May 4, with the date for the final plan unchanged on July 31.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We will consider the judgment and decide what we do next.”
Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner, said the nation’s health has “rightly been placed above political process”.
She added: “With 40,000 early deaths each year in the UK from air pollution, every delay in action costs lives. This is why it’s great news that the final air quality plan will still be published on time.”
James Eadie QC said the application was brought with considerable reluctance and was not “some sort of guise or demonstration of lack of commitment to improving air quality”.
There was concern that, as air quality was a sensitive issue with high political controversy, publication at this time would risk breaching the rules about civil service neutrality.
There were also concerns about the effectiveness of the consultation given the limited publicity allowed during purdah and the potentially highly compressed timetable.
Nathalie Lieven QC, for ClientEarth, said there were not sufficient grounds to justify the proposed delay.
Calling for publication and action as soon as possible, she said: “This is a huge focus of public concern and a huge issue for the media.
“It is an issue in this election whether the Government publishes the consultation or not.
“The controversy is there and is not going to be put on hold by not publishing the consultation document.”
Limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were introduced by EU law in 1999, and were to be achieved by 2010.