The government has been forced to concede it has breached EU pollution legislation and may now face censure from the European Commission.
Lawyers acting for environment secretary Caroline Spelman admitted in the High Court that breaches had occurred after action was brought by legal campaign group ClientEarth.
The group had complained that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had failed to consult properly on proposals that outlined how the UK would meet European rules on nitrogen dioxide.
ClientEarth alleged the plans did not comply with EU law and called on Spelman to publish revised proposals.
It argued that air quality plans for 17 of the UK's 43 regions had failed to meet legal limits for air quality by the 1 January 2010 deadline.
Member states were allowed to apply for a five year extension until 2015, but only as long as they showed efforts had been made to comply by 2010 and that regions would definitely no longer be in breach by 2015.
However, ClientEarth pointed out the government has previously admitted 16 regions will remain non-compliant until 2020, and London will be in breach for a further five years after that.
But while the judge, Mr Justice Mitting, said a Defra lawyer had conceded that 'the government is in breach of obligations', he declined to issue a 'mandatory order' forcing Defra to publish new plans, ruling it was a matter for the European Commission.
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