Wood-burning stoves attract thousands of neighbour complaints – but just two fines in six years

stove - iStockphoto
stove - iStockphoto

Wood-burning stove users reported by their neighbours in pollution hot spots are rarely breaking the law, a new study has suggested.

Local authorities say they seldom escalate complaints about households in smoke-control areas because they discover that "most of the time people are using authorised fuels anyway", according to a study in The British Journal of Criminology.

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 using unauthorised wood-burning stoves or fuels in smoke control areas.

But the study, conducted by James Heydon, a criminologist at the University of Nottingham, suggests councils struggle to find breaches of the regulations.

Freedom of Information requests to local authorities discovered 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 the 2,524 complaints about residential chimney smoke over the six-year period led to just two fines, of £400 and £110.

Plans up in smoke

Local authorities rely on smoke emission reports from residents before they can investigate potential breaches.

But Mr Heydon warned that people found it difficult to distinguish visibly between fuels that were banned and those permitted, and smoke could even be confused with the steam output of condensing boilers.

“The trouble is, authorised stoves and authorised fuels also produce smoke,” he said. “There's a 10-minute startup period where they produce smoke. So if someone reports it, then they might be witnessing it within that 10-minute period.”

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

The UK regularly breaches World Health Organisation guideline limits on PM2.5, with wood burning responsible for around 17 per cent of the pollutant, according to statistics from the environment department (Defra).

Smoke control areas, which are concentrated around major cities including London, Birmingham and Manchester, mandate the use of “smokeless” fuels, or stoves that meet criteria imposed by the environment department.

The least polluting wood-burning stove appliances on the market still permit 750 times the PM2.5 of a new HGV, and around 300 times that of a gas boiler each hour, according to Defra.

The number of models that are approved by Defra has increased tenfold since 2010, the study found, in line with the increase in popularity of wood-burning stoves in the home.

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

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