Just when you think it’s safe to put away the thesaurus and stop looking for words to describe Cheshire East Council (“inept, unskilled, substandard, bungling, inferior, lacking, leaving much to desire”), along comes a fresh scandal.
And it’s the worst yet (“illicit, actionable, unauthorised, unsanctioned, fraudulent, punishable”.) As we report this week, it concerns air quality monitoring and “a number of data inaccuracies” that have been identified.
It’s the biggest mess (“muddles, dog’s dinners, disarray, mare’s nest”) the council has got itself into, and the least defensible.
Monitoring air quality and reporting the figures to central government is not something councils do for fun; it’s a legal requirement.
The council monitors nitrogen dioxide levels at around 100 sites throughout the borough; councils have a statutory duty to report on NO2, as well as PM10s and SO2. The aim of this is improve air quality for the voters who, lest we forget, pay the wages and expense accounts of people at Cheshire East.
Section 83 of the Environment Act 1995 requires local authorities to designate air quality management areas where air quality objectives are not being achieved. Cheshire East has a number of air quality management areas, including West Street and Lower Heath in Congleton, and Sandbach, around the junction of A534 and A5022.
Despite this, an external investigation into the council’s figures has found that serious and deliberate errors were introduced in the council’s air quality data over three years, 2012-2014.
The fiddled — ie illegal — figures are in Congleton, Holmes Chapel and Sandbach, as well as Nantwich and Crewe.
The most serious aspect is that the council itself described the errors as “the result of deliberate and systematic manipulation of data from a number of diffusion tubes.” This was no accident.
This is important because — aside from exposing its electorate to unacceptable levels of pollution — the figures are used by the council. Most obvious is the air quality management areas, with manipulated figures possibly meaning that some areas that should be air quality management areas and are not.
The figures are also used in air quality assessments for planning applications; we’re assuming the figures are lower than they should be and that planning applications that should have been refused (because of the extra traffic they generate, for example) have been accepted.
Although the council is investigating, the lay person could reach three reasonable conclusions.
- The figures were fiddled to help get the local plan through, and the planning applications that were approved were happy coincidences. This is possible, but on previous evidence (Lyme Green, Congleton Park Pavilion, the awarding of contracts to physiotherapists, the shambles of the local plan) we doubt anyone at Cheshire East would come up with anything that subtle.
- Someone at the council has a soft spot for developers. As we understand it, the lower figures meant that certain sites got planning permission, or at least helped towards permission being obtained. To avoid any lawyers’ letters, we can’t see any obvious link between (possibly) multi-million-pound developments and figures being manipulated to allow them to go ahead, but maybe our worldlier readers can think of something.
- A rogue member of staff sent in the dodgy figures for a laugh, and nobody noticed.
Other than “Christ on a bike!” it’s hard to say anything reasonable about this latest fiasco. The implications are surely enormous.
Aside from any possible legal issues readers might come up with (see above), the council has presumably broken the law by submitting false figures. Should action be taken, any legal costs and eventual fines will come out of our pockets.
The council has also perhaps wrongly given planning permission to planning applications. The erroneous data is a couple of years old so presumably these developments — any we don’t know whether these are odd houses in back gardens or major schemes — are built. What happens now? Must their builders tear them down or re-apply for planning permission? What happens to the people living in them? Is the council going to face legal action or compensation claims? Do residents in areas that should have air quality management designation but don’t have a right to sue? It’s a total mess.
If a local school dropped any one of the billhooks that Cheshire East Council has, it would be in special measures. How many disasters do we have to endure before the Government steps in and puts Cheshire East under the control of someone who knows what they are doing?
And: is anyone Cheshire East going to take responsibility for anything? We don’t know who was to blame for Lyme Green, we’ve had no explanation or apology for the fiasco of the local plan, we’ve burned through chief execs faster than Donald Trump gets through Press officers, and we currently have several officers including the head of legal services and chief executive Mike Suarez suspended or otherwise not at their desks.
Somehow, we doubt any heads will roll. Indicative of the attitude at the council is that one of our reporters was asking for comment this week on another matter and was told she was brainless.
When she pushed, it turned out that everyone at the Chronicle is brainless, from the chairman down to the janitor.
There you have it: it’s not Cheshire East that makes mistakes, it’s the rest of us that are merely stupid.