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Leaked audit report shows senior staff ‘overlooked’ councillors’ anti-fracking position

A leaked confidential report has shown two senior members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council staff failed to appropriately amend a consultation document ahead of launching, to reflect the specific position of councillors around fracking.

The consultation process was immediately halted on discovery of the error and an apology issued.

The matter came to light when members were alerted to a section within the Local Development Plan (LDP) consultation document which stated: “Council will not permit exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon extraction until there is sufficient and robust evidence on all associated impacts on the environment and human health.”

However members had already unanimously agreed the wording should read: “Council will not permit exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon extraction until it is proved that there would be no adverse effects on the environment or public health.”

The error caused fury in the chamber and led to the convening of a special meeting for in-depth discussion, where it was announced an audit review had commenced.

Shocked members questioned the overall accuracy of the extremely important consultation document.

At the special meeting on 21 September more inconsistencies were noted, relating to sustainable drainage systems and affordable housing in the countryside.

Due to the significance of these errors, an investigation was established to ascertain how the inaccurate publication came about.

With that now complete, sources from a number of political parties confirmed senior staff did not ensure council recommendations were implemented, and delayed making changes, leaving the relevant material: “overlooked and forgotten.”

While the published text previously rejected by members, was exactly as suggested by the Department for Economy’s Minerals Branch, no evidence was found of any internal or external influence pertaining to failure around appropriately amending the document in line with council’s determination.

Two senior Planning staff have been identified as at fault, however as the matter is ongoing, neither are being named at this stage.

The internal investigation report was presented at the Audit Panel meeting on 18 November, which is not open to public or press.

It examined multiple sets of minutes, correspondence and material relevant to the consultation document.

All staff involved were identified and individually interviewed.

The leaked confidential document indicates the Fracking issue was traced to a meeting dating back several years.

The text in question was reported to the Regeneration and Community Committee in October 2019 and repeated in February 2020.

The consultation document was thereafter not appropriately amended to the stipulated member specifications, despite senior Planning staff being present at both meetings and others which touched upon the subject.

They also failed to obtain the relevant minutes, leading to insufficient information as to council determinations and required amendments.

The situation was described as information being “overlooked” as opposed to deliberately changed.

The two senior Planning staff found to have closest involvement, claimed to have delayed changes as they expected additional amendments, however none were ultimately implemented ahead of the publication of the consultation document.

It has also emerged appropriate checking and scrutiny fell short of expected and necessary standards.

By way of reasoning, it was stressed staff were working remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions, which may have impacted on otherwise tight monitoring practices.

The relevant staff cooperated fully with the investigation and accepted major error had occurred, causing significant reputational damage to council.

Recommendations arising from the investigation, include staff requirements to keep abreast of all council decisions, with training provided to ensure full implementation.

Management controls are also to be bolstered along with reviews around auditing.

Document signing-off ahead of approval for publication is to be reviewed, and council computer software is to be reorganised.

Due to reputational damage and underperformance, investigation into staff conduct as per disciplinary policies, has been recommended.

Overall, the audit review established the consultation document should not have been published as it was inaccurate and did not reflect the agreed position of council.

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