Cheshire East council is taking action to improve air quality monitoring procedures after ‘serious errors’ were found in data submitted to Defra as part of its annual air quality monitoring returns for 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The errors were the result of “deliberate and systematic manipulation of dataâ€? from around 42 of the 119 diffusion tubes used by the council to monitor air pollution, which had downplayed the overall level of pollution in the borough.
According to the council the problem stemmed from a failure to ensure “adequate processes, procedures and systemsâ€? were in place to manage the data effectively.
Concerns over the data were initially highlighted to councillors at a cabinet meeting last year (July 2016).
Following a report to the cabinet at the July 2016 meeting, the council’s internal audit team then commissioned an external investigation into how the erroneous data had arisen.
The investigation concluded that the errors and other methodological issues may have resulted in a “number of deficienciesâ€? in relation to Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) requiring adjustments to be made to the detail of the number of AQMAs within the borough.
The errors may have affected the detailed assessments carried out to determine whether an AQMA should be declared, according to Cheshire East council, and may have affected planning decisions in six towns including Crewe, Nantwich and Sandbach.
The council had established 13 Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) all of which have been declared for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
Sean Hannaby, Cheshire East’s 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.â€?
“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.â€?
Mr Hannaby added that the council website has been amended to display the correct data and supporting information, and the council’s annual status report for both 2016 and 2017 will be submitted to Defra within the next few weeks.
Following the findings of the review, the council’s Air Quality team has reviewed its 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.
Commenting on the issue, a Defra spokesperson said: “We are aware of this issue and understand the local authority is now considering its response to the investigation.â€?