Owners of wood-burning stoves risk fines because the information campaign has stalled

A wood stove - XXLPhoto/iStockphoto

A wood stove – XXLPhoto/iStockphoto

Households could be fined for using their wood-burning stoves without realizing they are breaking the rules, activists warn.

Half of households living in pollution hotspots are unaware that they are subject to regulations for their fireplaces, according to a survey by the environmental agency.

The government has called on councils to use powers to issue on-the-spot fines of between £175 and £300 to households breaching 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 households to unwittingly break the rules.

“Tougher enforcement of fines on the ground means people can be punished without realizing they are doing something wrong, so the government needs to be more educational as well,” said Andrea Lee, of Client Earth, an environmental law charity.

The government said this week it wants municipalities to step up their enforcement of rules in smoke control areas, allowing households to use only more efficient wood-burning stoves that meet Defra specifications.

Open fires are only allowed if smokeless coals are used. But a 2020 survey by the Environmental Department (Defra) found that 46 percent of households in smoke control rooms don’t know they’re covered by the regulation, and 34 percent don’t know if their stoves meet pollution regulations.

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

Defra says her information about which areas are subject to smoke control regulations is only an advisory and that households should always check with their municipality.

The government has said it will review and improve the way it communicates air quality information, but Ms Lee said efforts so far have failed to deliver a national awareness campaign.

Local government groups said councils lack the resources to fine households for breaking wood-burning rules, even with new powers introduced last May to issue fines on the spot instead of cases through the courts to prosecute.

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

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

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

“Local authorities are quite strapped for cash, and there isn’t exactly a national government campaign around smoke control areas or air pollution in general,” said Jason Torrance, the CEO of climate group UK100, which represents local government leaders.

“We have 107 Local Authority members across the country, many of whom are at the forefront of ambitious clean air and climate action. They have said we are really ready to do more, we just need more support from the central government.”

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