The government is hurrying towards new clean air targets which threaten to impact on the local economy in quite a short time, both in heating costs and in business patterns.

A two-month public consultation has been launched on policies which are already fairly firm decisions –

1) new standards for wood-burning stoves, even in rural areas, which might restrict even second-hand sales and in the long run might give local authorities an opportunity to insist on certification of stoves already installed;

2) new standards for logs and kindling, possibly meaning more kiln-drying required;

3) new restrictions on disposal of slurry from dairy farming.

All this is to start happening over the next three years, and there are only seven weeks left for public consultation. The environmental arguments are more or less over, as far as politicians are concerned. But the National Farmers Union and others are disputing whether the government is tackling the right problems in the right order and whether its main ideas are worth all the trouble.

Big players in the firewood industry have already signed up to a voluntary standard of dryness for logs, meaning less than 20 percent moisture content. Depending on wood and weather, it could take two years to get there by natural seasoning. The energy cost of more kiln drying, and the logistics involved, would be repaid to some extent by more heat from the stove and Defra has come up with an estimated cost of £13 a household a year – £423 million nationally over a decade. But that assumes buying logs in bags from the garage and approved logs might easily cost twice as much as a loose load off the back of a truck.

According to the London papers, ministers accept that there will be a continuing market in unchecked logs but they will be trying to squeeze it out, with an advertising campaign to promote a “Burnright “logo and fixed penalty notices for unlicensed sales – policed by Trading Standards.

Supporters argue that most log burners nowadays are middle class. Poorer people in old houses burn coal on the whole, according to national statistics. However, they also use scrap wood, of course – which will also be largely outlawed, because of chemical contamination of one sort or another.

And meanwhile it is proposed to extend to all areas the standards applied to coal-type fuels in Smoke Control Areas, for sulphur content and smoke emission. That would be the end of ordinary house coal for home consumption. Expensive anthracite, the highest grade of natural coal, will still do. And so will some manufactured briquettes, but some cheaper brands will be shut down and all manufacturing plants may be required to take in a proportion of sawdust or nut shells or similar, to meet a target for switching to regrowable fuels. This will mean more transportation and processing costs before the fuel gets to the customer.

Air quality is a growing concern at Westminster, as well as to international bodies like the World Health Organisation, and heavy particles from wet smoke have been pretty firmly identified as among the worst risks to health. The concentrations are mainly of concern in urban areas and rural areas have always been given leeway for tradition. But now the argument is that particles drift and the same rules should apply to everybody.

The minister for the environment, Therese Coffey, said this week: “Everyone has a role to play in improving the air we breathe, and reducing pollution from home is a key area where we can all take action.”

The legislation is aimed at controlling the sale of bagged wood, in quantities up to two cubic metres, so it would still be possible to buy or pick up larger loads of fresh logs, for home seasoning.

According to Horrabridge councillor Adam Minns, who works in forestry, local commercial logs – as opposed to the odd felled tree – are already at the standard of dryness required, thanks to barn drying.

He said: “You can test them with a little hand-held meter if you doubt it. I wouldn’t sell fresh logs anyway. People would complain about the smell and the smoke. Giving a few away from a felled tree, like we have done in the village once or twice, is a minor matter and I doubt anyone wants to stop that.”

However, the proposed system of inspection and labelling is bound to have cost and logistics implications, especially for forestry concerns which are under state control to some extent, like the South West Lakes woods around Burrator. Their local manager was not available for comment this week. Dartmoor Stoves of Tavistock said all their new stoves would pass emissions tests and they were not especially concerned so far, but watching out for the detail.

Defra briefings say:

* Approximately 38 percent of UK primary particulate matter emissions comes from burning wood and coal in domestic open fires and solid fuel stoves. This compares with industrial combustion (16 percent) and road transport (12 percent). The tiny particles can entere the bloodstream and enter internal organs, risking long term health issues as well as having more immediate impacts on some people, such as exacerbating breathing problems.

* “While domestic burning and other emissions have reduced significantly since the 1950s, the evidence on the adverse health impacts has grown, showing that even at today’s lower levels, harm can be caused. Since 2005, we have seen an increase in emissions from the domestic sector, largely due to an increase in the popularity of open fires and wood-burning stoves.”

* “A majority of coal suppliers considered that phasing out traditional house coal could have a significant impact on their businesses. Small coal merchants said they were most likely to go out of business and would need time to adjust. Phasing out house coal could also be problematic for off-gas-grid consumers in fuel poverty. However, given the health impacts, we are minded to take action to accelerate this shift to cleaner fuels.”

The other priority concern being pursued on scientific advice is ammonia gas, released into the atmosphere from slurry – the washings of manure from livestock sheds, which is stored in a pit or lagoon and then spread on fields as a fertiliser. The use of chicken and pig slurry has already been made harder and more expensive, with the imposition of a permit system backed up by inspections. Next target is dairy farming, which produces a lot of yard manure.

The government is suggesting dairy manure lagoons should at least be covered. There is a theory that controlled dispersal of ammonia is less damaging to the atmosphere than just letting it happen. The National Farmers Union is not convinced this is the best first option but says that meanwhile the government’s advice is impacting on planning decisions and costing thousands at a time.

Defra is running an online survey at https://consult.defra.gov.uk/airquality/domestic-solid-fuel-regulations/

Inquiries by email can be made to cleanair.consultations@defra.gsi.gov.uk/

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