The European Commission is taking the UK to court over a “persistent” failure to reduce air pollution.
It could see the government hit with a multimillion pound fine by the European Court of Justice. Action is also being taken against France, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Romania.
The Commission said it was standing up for the right of citizens to breath clean air at a time when pollution is responsible for 400,000 deaths across Europe every year.
“We have said that this Commission is one that protect,” said environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella. “Our decision follows through on that claim.”
The legal proceedings come after the Commission in January issued a final warning to nine member states who were breaching agreed air quality levels.
The UK responded by setting out plans to reduce pollution and talks were held in a bid to avoid a legal dispute, but the Commission judged the plans to be too little and too late.
Spain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia did though manage to convince the Commission of their intentions to improve air quality and were spared legal action today.
“The Member States referred to the Court today have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation,” added Vella.
“It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”
The dispute relates to levels of nitrogen dioxide and ‘particulate matter’ being created by traffic and industry.
Overexposure to either can cause asthma, lung cancer and heart problems.
The Commission found levels of nitrogen dioxide exceeded safe limits in 16 areas of the UK including London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow.
The agreed limit is 40 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) – it was found to be 102 µg/m3 in London. That is higher than any other city in the EU.
The UK’s case at the European Court of Justice is expected to be heard within months.
The Court has the power to impose fines for everyday the problems continues, but the UK could avoid this by agreeing to take extra measures.
A UK government spokesperson said they were bringing down nitrogen dioxide levels and were already meeting other air quality limits.
But Green MEP Keith Taylor said the EU’s legal action was needed because the UK government “remains steadfastly apathetic in the face of a public health crisis.”
He also said the action showed why Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s plans for a new environment watchdog without the ability to take the government to court is flawed.
“Post-Brexit, this is exactly the kind of scrutiny and oversight the Conservatives plan to escape,” said Mr Taylor.
The Government last night suffered its 15th defeat over the Withdrawal Bill in Lords as peers voted to maintain EU environmental standards after Brexit.