New figures uncovered by air pollution campaign group Mums for Lungs reveal that councils around the country have recorded a high number of complaints about smoke from domestic fires over the last two years, yet have carried out little enforcement on them. To draw national attention to this, today, Wednesday 24 January 2024 will mark the first ever Clean Air Night, where environmental charity Global Action Plan will be shining a light on the uncomfortable truth about wood burning.
Some 581 complaints were made between January 2022 and September 2023, in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield, with just three fines handed out in response. Sheffield Council is the only council in the whole of England to have carried out a prosecution for smoke nuisance yet, shockingly, over 400 complaints have yet to be actioned.
Celebrating a Clean Air Night
Mums for Lungs argues that the Clean Air Night is a chance to learn from leading experts, who will help to debunk common myths around wood burning, and provide information on how and why wood burning is bad for your health.
Jemima Hartshorn, who founded campaign group Mums for Lungs, said:
“The Government claims to have ‘world leading’ legal provisions to address air pollution but our research shows these are abjectly failing. Thousands of people are dying from respiratory illnesses and thousands of complaints are being made, but no action is being taken to clean up our air. People are suffocating, but being met with silence.”
Government measures not being implemented
Mums for Lungs recently discovered that despite particulate pollution from domestic burning increasing by 124% between 2011 and 2021, there is barely any enforcement of smoke control areas in England.
New measures were introduced by national government in May 2022 to deal with domestic burning, as part of the Environment Act, but just a handful of councils have used these provisions to manage domestic wood burning complaints since they came into force. This highlights confusion amongst local authorities about how their powers can be used to limit pollution from domestic burning.
Only one prosecution and three fines were given out for wood burning despite 10,600 complaints across England between January 2022 and September 2023.
Given the confusion and lack of enforcement of new rules, Mums for Lungs are calling on the government to simplify the situation by phasing out domestic wood burning where alternative heating exists.
Local authority lack of action
In Leeds, 214 complaints were received, with information on enforcement actions not being available. In North Yorkshire, there were 62 complaints, with 20 warnings, or guidance information issued. As highlighted above, Sheffield Council had received 581 complaints and had taken enforcement action on only 114 of these.
Sheffield resident Graham Turnbull who is a part of the campaign group, commented:
“I was shocked to hear how many complaints the council receives and how little is being done about it. I know that national legislation is poor, but other local authorities have at least used their communication channels to carry out education campaigns. Wood burning gives off a huge amount of air pollution, permanently damaging children’s health, and more needs to be done about it. As we saw in the last census, almost everyone in Sheffield has gas central heating, so wood fires around here are for aesthetic reasons. I can smell it all the time where I live and I’m upset the council can’t do more about it.”
The government has a commitment in place to reduce inhalable fine particulate matter (PM2.5 – or particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter) by 2040, which for campaigners like Graham Turnbull and Mums for Lungs is not acceptable, as it means that we are going to be breathing this toxic air for at least the next 16 years.
Mixed messages from certain media outlets have further caused confusion with their contradictory stances, with headlines in The Telegraph a month ago, calling for health warnings for wood-burning stoves. The same publication, then had a lead story barely two weeks ago calling for more people to ‘consider’ buying wood-burners.
The council with the most complaints recorded in the year from 2022 – 2023 was Birmingham, with 1494 complaints, or 14% of the total received for the year. With apparently no sense of irony, Birmingham City Council has been notable for their support of the Mums for Lungs’ Clean Air Night.
Whether this first national campaign night will be successful in slowing the sale and use of wood-burning stoves remains to be seen.
It is worth noting that only 8% of those burning indoors do so because they have no other choice. Most people in the UK use wood burners for aesthetic and lifestyle reasons, or because they believe it’s cheaper than using other forms of heating.
The aim of Clean Air Night then is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning, so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.