Wood-burning stoves attract thousands of complaints from neighbors – but only two fines in six years

stove - iStockphoto

stove – iStockphoto

Wood-burning stove users reported by their neighbors in pollution hotspots rarely break the law, a new study has suggested.

Local authorities say they rarely raise complaints about households in smoke control areas because they find that “most of the time people are using authorized fuels anyway”, according to a study in the British Journal of Criminology .

The Government has asked councils to use powers to hand out on-the-spot fines of between £175 and £300 to households found to be using unauthorized wood-burning stoves or fuels in smoke control areas.

But the study, carried out by James Heydon, a criminologist at the University of Nottingham, suggests that councils are struggling to detect breaches of the regulations.

Freedom of Information requests to local authorities found that 83 per cent of complaints between 2014 and 2020 resulted in a letter, phone call or visit to the source of the smoke.

But only two fines, £400 and £110, were imposed for 2,524 complaints about residential chimney smoke over the six-year period.

Plans up in smoke

Local authorities rely on reports of smoke emissions from residents before they can investigate potential violations.

But Mr Heydon warned that it was difficult for people to make a clear distinction between banned and permitted fuels, and that smoke could even be confused with the steam output of condensing boilers.

“The trouble is, authorized stoves and authorized fuels also produce smoke,” he said. “There is a 10-minute start-up period when they produce smoke. So if someone reports it, they might be looking at it within that 10-minute period.”

Mr Heydon said his findings suggested that current regulations on wood burners were insufficient to tackle the emission of harmful PM2.5 particle pollution.

The UK regularly exceeds World Health Organization guideline limits on PM2.5, with wood burning responsible for around 17 per cent of the pollutant, according to statistics from the Department for the Environment (Defra).

Smoke control areas, centered on major cities including London, Birmingham and Manchester, mandate the use of “smokeless” fuels, or stoves that meet criteria imposed by the Department of the Environment.

The least polluting wood burning stove appliances on the market still allow 750 times the PM2.5 of a new HGV, and around 300 times more than a gas boiler every time, according to Defra.

The number of models approved by Defra has increased tenfold since 2010, the study found, in line with the rise in demand for wood burning stoves in the home.

“The problem is we have no idea how many people now have or are using authorized wood burning stoves,” he said.

The Government announced this week that new stoves will have stricter limits on the amount of smoke they can emit each hour in smoke control areas, as part of its new five-year green targets.

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