Cheshire East Council is taking action to improve air quality monitoring procedures in response to concerns raised at a Cabinet meeting on 12 July 2016.
A report, received at that meeting, stated: “As part of the preparatory work for the 2015 annual report and return to Defra, a number of data inaccuracies have been identified that impact on the 2015 report and the 2014 report which has already been submitted.”
The council monitors nitrogen dioxide levels at approximately 100 sites throughout the borough as part of its ongoing work to improve local air quality.
Following the report, the council’s internal audit team undertook a full review and issued a number of recommendations which led to the commissioning of an external investigation.
This external investigation is now complete and the council is considering its response to the findings and recommendations.
The high level findings are:
1) Serious errors have been made in the council’s air quality data for 2012, 2013 and 2014. It is clear that these errors are the result of deliberate and systematic manipulation of data from a number of diffusion tubes.
2)The council has been exposed to unacceptable risks to the security of its air quality data as a result of failings within the service to ensure that adequate processes, procedures and systems were in place to manage this data effectively.
3)These errors have caused a number of serious problems for the council. These are as follows:
· Incorrect data has been submitted to Defra in an annual statutory return, which will need to be corrected and published in the public domain.
· These errors and other methodological issues have resulted in a number of deficiencies in relation to Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) requiring adjustments to be made to the detail of the number of AQMAs.
· The errors may have affected the Detailed Assessments (DA) carried out to determine whether an AQMA should be declared.
· The errors have impacted on Air Quality Assessments undertaken as part of the process of considering planning applications.
4) The data sets that are aligned to the diffusion tubes that were and are now known to be altered are spread over a wide geographical area, which implies that the manipulation was not motivated by a wish to favour specific sites.
5) Phase 2 of the external investigation included a review of planning applications where publication of revised air quality data may have affected the planning decisions. The findings indicate that such planning applications are in the following towns:
· Holmes Chapel
The statutory return to Defra for 2016 (Annual Status Report) has been reviewed and quality assured as part of the investigation. As such by the end of this month the council will be in a position to seek the approval of the Director of Public Health for both the 2016 and 2017 ASR submission to Defra. Both the 2016 and 2017 reports are based on corrected data and include actions as recommended by the investigation.
The Air Quality team have reviewed their internal processes and procedures to ensure that the risk of data adjustment is minimised. There are now a number of quality control measures in place.
Sean Hannaby, Director of Planning and Sustainable Development, said: “On behalf of the council I would like to sincerely apologise in respect of these findings, we would like to assure everyone that we have done everything we can to rectify these failings. It is worth reiterating that in July 2016 the then Director of Public Health assured us that there are no immediate health protection measures needed as a result of these errors and I have been assured that this advice still stands.
“We appreciate that it has been a year now since we first reported these concerns, but it was important that we ensured a thorough review and investigation into this important matter.
“Significant work has been undertaken to ensure that there are now robust processes and procedures in place. The planning service is currently analysing the relevant planning applications to assess whether any additional mitigation measures are required. Our council website now contains the correct data and supporting information and our annual status report for both 2016 and 2017 containing the accurate data will be submitted to Defra within the next few weeks.
“Consideration is still being given as to the council’s response to the investigation's findings in relation to any HR issues.”