Councils say they lack funds to enforce stricter limits on wood burners
Local authorities lack the resources for the crackdown on highly polluting wood burners promised by the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, they say.
Wood-burning in urban areas is an increasing source of harmful air pollution, as people install stoves for aesthetic reasons or to save money on gas.
On Tuesday, Coffey announced that new burners would have to meet stricter standards on smoke, and said people with existing appliances should be “encouraged” to take steps to reduce their harmful emissions. She also called on councils to use their existing powers in smoke control zones.
But no extra money will be provided to enforce the regulations, and cash-strapped councils have said it is beyond their means.
Councillor David Renard, of the Local Government Association, said: “Councils are happy to take on these responsibilities, but we need funding to resource them properly. Councils have very limited resources, with so much going on social care. Balancing these priorities is a real problem.”
Persuading people with wood burners to give them up would be difficult but probably necessary, he said. “It will be a challenge to get people to give up something they’ve been used to having,” he said.
He said people using or thinking of installing wood burners should also be informed of the problems with their use. Research has found that even stoves sold as “eco-friendly” and that meet the government’s current regulations pour out as much dangerous fine particulate pollution – called PM2.5, which can penetrate deep into the body – as 750 HGV lorries.
This pollution affects people living in the house where the stove burns, and also near neighbours in dense urban settings, where the harmful pollution can settle and linger over streets and local areas.
PM2.5 pollution has been linked to a wide range of health problems, from heart failure and lung problems to dementia and mental illness in children.
Renard said: “It’s important that people are given clear messaging about the health hazards to households and the neighbourhood. The government needs to work with a wide range of partners to take the action that removes the sources of air pollution everywhere, so that all communities have the benefits of clean air.”
Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, wants new powers for local authorities to replace those in current legislation, which councils have said are outdated and hard to enforce.
A spokesperson for Khan said: “Wood burning accounts for up to 30% of local PM2.5 emissions in London, which is why controlling wood burning is an important urban issue. The Clean Air Act powers are outdated and hard to use so it’s not surprising that boroughs find it hard to enforce them, especially at a time when resources are stretched.”
Khan wants the government to set tighter emissions limits for wood burners nationally, and in London allow the mayor to set new minimum standards for stoves, as well as providing local authorities with more resources and stronger enforcement powers in smoke control zones.
Labour has also criticised Coffey’s response to rising concerns over air quality. Ruth Jones, shadow environment minister, said: “After years of dither and delay from the Tories, Labour will deliver on the promise to save lives and protect our environment by finally tackling toxic air in our communities through our Clean Air Act. This will give local and regional authorities the effective and real powers they need to reduce pollution from all sources.”
Health campaigners have also been concerned that Coffey appeared to give up on taking the tough measures needed to remedy the UK’s toxic air.
On Tuesday, she said: “I would have loved to have made our target to achieve 10 micrograms [of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, per cubic metre of air] by 2030, not 2040. Many parts of the country already enjoy this, but the evidence shows us that with the best will in the world we cannot achieve that everywhere by the end of the decade, particularly in London.”
But air pollution experts pointed to research by King’s College London and Imperial College London that has shown the government could achieve the more stringent targets, which are supported by the public in polls, if it took stronger action on the sources of pollution, which include diesel cars and wood-burning.
Andrea Lee, campaigns and policy manager for clean air at Client Earth, which has successfully taken the government to court on the issue, said Coffey’s stance was condemning a generation of English children to growing up in dirty air that would affect their health for the rest of their lives.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Domestic burning is a major contributor to air pollution. That’s why our landmark  Environment Act has made it easier for local authorities to take legal action on pollution from domestic burning in urban areas, including powers to issue fines. We will fully fund all new burdens on local authorities arising from the Environment Act.”