DEFRA air quality reporting criticised by regulator

Making improvements to official air pollution figures is “critical” for them to maintain their status as official standards, says the UK’s statistics watchdog.

In a report published yesterday, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) said that a range of actions are needed to “further enhance the public value, quality and trustworthiness” of DEFRA’s air quality statistics and emissions of air pollutants, as summarised in separate annual bulletins. They are based on data collated on DEFRA’s UK-AIR website and the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI), which is under the supervision of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Data from both sources should be integrated and cross-referenced “as far as possible” to provide a more coherent overview of air pollution in the UK, says the report.

Based on feedback from users, one of its recommendations is to “work quickly to develop and implement a portal bringing together local and national air quality data” to maximise access and user value. The Clean Air Strategy mentions an intention to set up a unified platform, though without a specific timeframe for doing so.

As things stand, UK-AIR carries data from only nationally-managed monitoring sites. Data from those operated by local authorities is carried by a succession of websites, such as Air Quality in Scotland and Sussex Air. In the capital, the London Air Quality Network carries data from local authorities, while the Breathe London website, launched last week, is based on a separate sensor network.

DEFRA should consider using this local data in its statistics, “to generate greater insights about trends in air quality”, says the report.

Improvements are also needed in the accessibility and navigability of UK-AIR and the NAEI and to the structure of annual bulletins. “It can be hard for users to interpret recent changes in emissions” says the OSR. Older editions of the emissions and bulletins should be kept on DEFRA’s website – only the latest editions appear, the regulator observed.

In places, the report is damning: “DEFRA does not engage with users directly or proactively” it stated, adding that the lack of clear links between statistics are “frustrating”. The department should “develop a greater understanding” of users and “initiate an ongoing dialogue” with them, the OSR said.

A key criticism is that, in contrast to emissions data, “the limitations of the air quality data are not explained”. As happened during last week’s ozone episode, “monitoring stations do not capture data uninterrupted for the whole year” as they need to be calibrated, serviced and can break down. There is a lack of transparency about how uptime is maximised, uncertainty about the accuracy of the data obtained and it us “unclear how representative measurements are for a given site and location.”

Simon Birkett, director of campaign group Clean Air in London, said that the report “blows the lid on DEFRA’s decade-long cover-up of monitoring data and alerts.”

But the ONR has been far from universally critical, praising the close working relationship between DEFRA and contractor Ricardo, and “their effective engagement with data providers and other contractors and stakeholders to ensure high data quality. In general, information about the emissions data sources and the air quality monitoring network is clear and helpful,” it states, adding that quality control processes are “rigorous and well-established”.

The OSR also welcomed the decision to recruit a new statistician to free up staff time for development work.

The OSR has given DEFRA until May 2020 to report on its progress towards meeting its recommendations, which includes publishing and updating a formal development plan. Only once it has satisfied the OSR’s agenda will the UK Statistics Authority be asked to judge whether to confirm the national statistics designation.

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “The report found that our statistics are of high quality, are trustworthy and are valued by users. We recognise we can always improve our statistics and will work with the OSR, users and stakeholders to implement the requirements and recommendations of this report.”

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