The government has been forced to rethink its road building plans after being ordered by the European Court of Justice to cut air pollution as soon as possible.
The Court has effectively ordered the government to produce plans to cut nitrogen dioxide levels to below limits set out in the Air Quality Directive.
This directive required EU member states to meet nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emission targets from 1 January 2010 - but the UK missed this deadline in 40 of its 43 air quality zones.
All extensions of this deadline allowed by the EU run out on 31 December 2014, and the UK government has been told to comply as a matter of urgency. The case was initially brought by environmental group Client Earth and heard in the UK courts before it was referred to the European Court of Justice.
Following the ruling, Friends of the Earth called for more low emission zones and congestion charges; a halt to all future road construction projects; and a move to reduce reliance on road transport.
“This ruling should force the government to take the urgent steps needed to clean up Britain’s filthy air, and help prevent many of the tens of thousands of premature deaths every year caused by air pollution,” said Friends of the Earth campaigner Jenny Bates.
“Action on road traffic, the main cause of air pollution, is essential to end this health scandal - far more must be done to clean up our vehicles and
cut traffic levels.
Investment in alternatives to car travel are also needed, such as cheap and efficient public transport and making it safer and easier for people to get around on their bikes.”
She added: “UK air quality is a national disgrace - tough measures are long overdue.”
House of Commons environmental audit committee chairman Joan Walley ramped up the pressure on the government following the ruling.
“Instead of taking action to save lives and protect people living or working near busy roads, ministers have complacently carried on with business as usual,” she said.
“It is not acceptable for ministers who live in leafy suburbs to tell people living next to busy roads in towns and cities that they have to wait until 2030 to breathe clean air.
“Children’s development and people’s lives are at risk right now; we need urgent action to get the most polluting vehicles off our streets and get more people walking, cycling and taking public transport.
“Today’s ruling from the European Court is a welcome intervention, because it will force the government to prioritise the issue of air quality in all decisions on transport policy and infrastructure.”
The government itself pledged to take action. A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokeman said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and average roadside concentrations of NO2 levels have fallen 15% since 2010.
“We have built on this by committing £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles, green transport initiatives and supporting local authorities to take action.
“The government is fully committed to ensuring compliance with EU air quality standards and we are revising our plans to reflect recent action so we can be compliant as soon as possible. This is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.
“This judgment confirms that where limit values are exceeded, plans must be developed which ensure compliance in the shortest possible time - this has always been the government’s position.
The Campaign for Better Transport earlier this year called for a £3bn “green retrofit” for the UK’s roads, to reduce their impact on the environment and local communities.