Government bid to delay air pollution decision due to upcoming general election and ‘purdah rules’

This is the latest development in the long-running legal dispute between the UK Government and a group of environmental lawyers, ClientEarth. The campaigners began initial proceedings after the UK breached EU limits for nitrogen dioxide in the air. These limits were supposed to have been achieved by 2010, but many regions in the UK are still in breach of these restrictive levels – mostly attributed to diesel vehicles.

In April 2015, ClientEarth won a Supreme Court ruling against the government over these air pollution levels. The government came up with proposals to deal with the levels in the wake of the ruling. However, ClientEarth were dissatisfied with these proposals and consequently took the government to the High Court in a judicial review, which it also won. The government’s draft proposals for the next plan of action to deal with pollution levels was due on 24 April; however, the government sought an extension to this deadline, citing the purdah rules.

What is purdah?

  • Purdah is the period leading up to an election, during which care should be taken to avoid making decisions or public announcements that could be seen to favourable to any particular political party
  • Purdah for June’s snap election began at midnight 21 April and ends once polls close on 8 June
  • Purdah applies to all local and central government organisations, non-departmental public bodies, other arm’s length bodies, and NHS Trusts
  • The general principle is that all controversial decisions or announcements should be postponed until after the election (unless detrimental to national interest). In practice, anything that is likely to attract attention (such as announcing a new policy) should be delayed, although each matter is considered on a case-by-case basis.

The High Court dismissed the government’s application, however, stating that purdah was a convention only and did not override legal obligations to clean up the air. Additionally, the impact on public health would exempt it from the purdah rules anyway.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan weighed in on the case, stating that he was delighted with the outcome:

“Ministers were dragged kicking and screaming to face the huge scale of this health crisis, but rather than take immediate action to protect the public they deliberately used the election as a smokescreen to hold back their plan.”

On 2 May the government announced it would not be appealing the decision and the High Court has set the 9 May as the deadline for new proposals to be made public.