The government wasted half a million pounds losing court battles over its plans to tackle air quality, new figures have revealed.
A Freedom of Information request by the Labour Party shows more than £500,000 was spent defending claims brought by environmental lawyers ClientEarth - who said ministers’ proposals did not go far enough - and others.
The most recent High Court battle in February saw the government incur costs of £148,135. It was also ordered to pay ClientEarth’s costs, up to a total of £35,000. Similar hearings in July and April last year totted up bills totaling more than £83,000.
Labour claims coupled with the £310,000 already spent fighting previous legal cases, ministers were persistently wasting taxpayers’ money.
Shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said: “This Tory government has had to be dragged through the courts every step of the way and have wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ money fighting losing cases instead of taking action.
“The issue of illegal dirty air is one impacting the health of millions of people across the country, including those most vulnerable in our communities. This public health emergency needs to be tackled with the urgency, leadership and seriousness it so desperately needs.”
Toxic air is responsible for more than 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year, and campaigners want environment secretary Michael Gove to implement a national network of Clean Air Zones - preventing the most polluting vehicles from entering areas with poor air quality.
Figures show more than 38 million people live in areas where safe air pollution levels are consistently breached - and that the problem costs the economy £20 billion every year.
The government has said it plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars completely by 2040 and has given more money to local councils to help them tackle air pollution hotspots.
Jenny Bates, clean air campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: “Perhaps if the government spent as much time and money coming up with a decent air quality plan as it did briefing lawyers to unsuccessfully claim that current plans are adequate, we may see the progress we need when it comes to cleaning up the UK’s toxic air.
“There are tens of thousands of early deaths each year in the UK, simply because of the dirty, polluted air they’re breathing. Government action is too little, too late, and as a result people across the country are continuing to suffer unnecessarily.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We have already delivered significant improvements in air quality since 2010 and it was right to defend our position in court. The judge dismissed two of the three complaints in the latest case and found that our approach to areas with major air quality problems is ‘sensible, rational and lawful’.
“We will continue to implement our £3.5 billion plan and work with local authorities to reduce emissions and improve air quality.”