Toxic smoke: Urban wood burning faces minimal enforcement

Air pollution campaign group Mums for Lungs has called for a ban on wood burning stoves, a growing source of air pollution, after an analysis found that complaints about wood smoke have about a one in a thousand chance of leading to a fine.

Members of the public made at least 18,693 complaints over wood smoke pollution over the past six years, according to responses made to freedom of information requests submitted by the group. But these led to only 19 fines being issued by seven local authorities: an average of three a year, according to the campaigners

The most complaints were made in urban areas, the greatest in the London boroughs of Bexley and Enfield, which have had 1,883 and 1,366 since 2016, respectively. Not one fine was obtained in response, nor were any penalty notices imposed, according to the figures.

Tougher restrictions on wood burning must be mandated in response, say the campaigners.

Open domestic fires are supposedly prohibited within smoke control areas (SCAs), which apply in most towns and cities. Within them, smoke may only be emitted from a chimney from the use of an authorised fuel, or from an ‘exempt appliance’, namely certain burners and stoves. Those who break the rules can face a fine of up to £1,000.

But the system has been considered outmoded for years. It dates from the Clean Air Act 1956, a time when the dangers of smoke – or particulates in modern parlance – were not appreciated to the extent they are now.

Hardly any of the councils surveyed by Mums for Lungs appear to be taking the rules seriously, the campaign group’s analysis indicates. Many sent only warning letters, if that, in response to complaints, and most conducted no inspections and took no enforcement action.

A notable exception is the London Borough of Barnet. In response to 943 complaints, it sent 987 warning letters and made 949 inspections. But again, it failed to follow through with enforcement action. It imposed only one penalty notice, in 2016, and made one prosecution the following year.

Parts of Derbyshire were also more ready to take action than most other locations. The district councils of Bolsover and North East Derbyshire responded to 316 complaints with 107 inspections, 133 warnings and 10 penalty notices, but no prosecutions.

The general lack of enforcement of SCAs has become more and more of a problem, as the regime has done nothing to stop the rising popularity of burning wood for home heating or pleasure in urban homes. Around 10% of households, or 2.5m, use a stove or open fire, even though 96% of them have an alternative source of heat.

This is despite the problem being recognised for more than a decade, and the number of complaints rising rapidly, from less than 3,000 in 2019 to over 5,500 last year.

In 1990, residential wood burning is estimated to have emitted around 6,000t of fine particulates (PM2.5), a small fraction of the 546,000t emitted from all sources. Industry and vehicles have cleaned up vastly since then, leading to emissions crashing to an estimated 109,000t in 2019. But PM2.5 released from wood burning rose hit 41,000t – making it a critical source to target.

By 2022, all of the 200,000 or so stoves sold each year in the UK must comply with EU ecodesign requirements, for particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organics and heating efficiency. The Stove Industry Alliance campaign has encouraged early compliance.

But Jemima Hartshorn, founder of Mums for Lungs, described them as “like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Even so-called ‘eco-stoves’ emit much more pollution than diesel HGVs – and you would not want those in your living room! We urge the government to end wood burning, and those who have a woodburner or a fireplace, to think twice.”

The campaigners want all wood stoves phased out from sale by 2027, and labelled as harmful to health in advance of this. All should be registered with councils to assist with enforcement and a public health campaign to raise awareness of their dangers should be launched, they say.

A DEFRA spokesperson said that the government was taking steps to reduce air pollution from household burning by restricting the sale of coal and wet wood, and encouraging the use of cleaner fuels.

Once it passes parliament, the Environment Bill will amend the Clean Air Act 1993 to replace criminal prosecution for SCA violations with a civil penalty regime, “which allows for the removal of the statutory defences that currently hinder enforcement. This will enable quicker, simpler and more proportionate enforcement at a local level against the emissions of smoke within a smoke control area”, says a briefing on the legislation. The limit on fines for delivering unapproved solid fuels within SCAs will also be removed, and retailers will be obliged to notify customers of the rules for burning.

In addition, the bill will extend the statutory nuisance system to private homes in SCAs, enabling councils to “take more substantive action” against repeat offenders through issuing abatement notices, breaching which would be a criminal offence.

The demand to phase out wood burning comes just ahead of the expected publication of the long-awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy, which is intended to move the public off combustion in general and towards electrified heating.