Coun Audrey Smith (Lab, Sowerby Bridge) proposed the board should recommend to Cabinet that it designate West Vale the status and asked why giving it that status was so controversial.
Coun Jacob Cook (Con, Greetland and Stainland) said as he understood it the threshold did not have to be crossed for the status to be applied, it was at the council’s discretion.
“But I think the answer to Coun Smith’s question is the reason why the council don’t want to do that is it might jeopardise their plans to build houses as part of the Local Plan off Saddleworth Road – that is why they are reluctant to do it, in my estimation,” he said.
More than 1,000 people had signed a petition calling for AQMA status – AQMAs are areas where air pollution levels have exceeded the national air quality objectives.
Among their concerns are that potentially building 600 homes off Saddleworth Road at the village might make air quality worse.
The council said latest figures did not show nitrogen dioxide levels meeting the level, but Place Scrutiny Board members heard an AQMA could also be declared even if the threshold was not actually being breached.
Presenting the petition, Coun Cook said to achieve AQMA status levels needed to exceed an annual mean level nitrogen dioxide figure of 40 microgrammes (per cubic metre).
He then referred to readings taken in 2018 which he claimed would have shown air quality in West Vale breached the threshold and it should have been declared an AQMA then, but use of a national, rather than local, reduction factor had been used which took readings below the limit.
He claimed the national factor had been applied because real-time monitors in the village had been switched off for three months.
“On the face of it, it looks like they’ve done that on purpose to drop the figure below the legal limit,” he said.
He wanted to know why the monitors had been switched off at that time and why a national reduction process had been applied rather than a local one.
The council’s Head of Neighbourhoods, Andrew Pitts, said the council’s air quality technical expert was unavailable to attend the meeting but he had been provided with latest figures, for 2020, which showed levels below the threshold and thus not requiring AQMA status.
“In terms of the 2018 issue, I am afraid I have no knowledge of that.
“If you want to take it to a conspiracy theory approach and say the council deliberately switched monitors off for three months, I don’t know whether that will be the case.
“What I can do, is I will get you an explanation as to why those were, in your words, ‘switched off’, which implies a deliberate act by the council,” he said.
After Coun Cook’s comments linking the issue with the Local Plan, Mr Pitts said: “I think there are some questions that have been raised tonight that are important enough for transparency reasons that we need to get a clear answer to, because certainly I take these as almost being accusations that the council has done things to deliberately manipulate situations and it is clearly in the public interest that I get that information so we are very clear about the reasons why the actions that have been referred to tonight were taken.”
Mr Pitts said if he had known about the 2018 questions in advance – these were not referred to in the petition – he would have been prepared with answers and Coun Cook acknowledged he should perhaps have indicated these would be raised.
Councillors agreed issues raised by Coun Cook and Lyndsey Ashton, speaking on behalf of the petitioners, had changed how they were looking at the issue.
Ms Ashton said residents were not just anxious about the situation – the board heard several roads converge at a junction in West Vale which among other things is next to a primary school – they were “furious”.
“The council is obliged to protect our children and bringing data from 2020, during lockdown, it’s a ridiculously low figure.
“I am so angry because it directly impacts on children, I can’t believe what I am hearing,” she said.
Coun Dave Young (Lab, Calder) said information in the paper did not quite reflect what councillors were hearing at the meeting and debate should be deferred for updated information.
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