Wood-burning stove owners face fines as public information campaign stalls

A wood-burning stove - XXLPhoto/iStockphoto
A wood-burning stove - XXLPhoto/iStockphoto

Households could be fined for using their wood-burning stoves without realising they are breaking rules, campaigners have warned.

Half of households living in pollution hotspots are unaware they are subject to regulations on their fireplaces, according to a survey by the environment department.

The Government has called on councils to use powers to hand out on-the-spot fines of between £175 to £300 to households found to be breaking pollution limits in hotspots known as smoke control areas.

But campaign groups say a lack of information about where smoke control areas are, and whether their wood-burning stoves are compliant, could lead to households unwittingly breaking the rules.

“Harsher enforcement of on the spot fines means people could be penalised without realising they're doing anything wrong, so the Government needs to also increase education,” said Andrea Lee, from environmental law charity Client Earth.

The Government this week said it wants to see councils step up their enforcement of rules in smoke control areas, under which households can only use more efficient wood-burners that meet Defra specifications.

Open fires are only permitted if they are using smokeless coals. But a 2020 survey by the environment department (Defra) found 46 per cent of households in smoke control areas are unaware they are under regulations, and 34 per cent do not know if their stoves meet pollution regulations.

Smoke control areas are concentrated around major cities including London, Birmingham and Manchester, where PM2.5 fine particulate pollution is especially bad, but they are also dotted around the country.

Defra says its information on which areas are under smoke control regulations is only advisory, and households should always check with their local councils.

The Government has said it will review and improve how it communicates air quality information, but Ms Lee said that efforts so far have fallen short of a national public awareness campaign.

Local government groups said councils do not have the resources to fine households for breaking rules on wood burning, even with new powers introduced last May to hand out on-the-spot fines rather than pursue things through the courts.

Local authorities rely on reports from local residents of smoke emissions before they can investigate potential breaches, and they are expected to first issue a written warning.

Research from Nottingham University this week showed that 83 per cent of complaints between 2014 and 2020 led to a letter, phone call or visit to inspect the source of the smoke.

But 2,524 complaints about residential chimney smoke in 30 councils over the six-year period led to just two fines, of £400 and £110.

“Local authorities are pretty strapped for cash,  and there's not exactly a national government's campaign around smoke control areas or air pollution more generally,” said Jason Torrance, the chief executive of climate group UK100, which represents local government leaders.

“We have 107 Local Authority members around the country, many of which are at the vanguard of taking ambitious action on clean air and climate. They've been saying that we're really standing ready to do more, we just need more support from central government.”