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New stats reveal how little action is being taken to tackle toxic wood burning in Sheffield

Sheffield was the only city in the country to prosecute someone for smoke nuisance – but 467 complaints still went unanswered.

A Cold Morning in Walkhampton geograph org uk 85879
Gwyn Jones on Wikimedia Commons.

New data obtained through transparency requests has revealed how little enforcement action is being taken to combat toxic air pollution caused by home burning in Sheffield.

Figures collected by campaign group Mums for Lungs show that Sheffield City Council (SCC) received 581 complaints between January 2022 and September 2023 about smoke from domestic fires, including wood burners.

The council issued £300 fines in response to three of these complaints, making it the only council in England to issue any fines at all (out of a total of 10,600 complaints). SCC sent a further 111 warning letters, meaning that 467 complaints led to no action being taken at all.

SCC is also the only council in the whole of England to have used powers introduced in May 2022 to prosecute someone for smoke nuisance offences, although this measure was only used once between January 2022 and September 2023.

"I was shocked to hear how many complaints the council receives and how little is being done about it," said Graham Turnbull, a Sheffield resident and part of the Mums for Lungs campaign.

"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."

Particulate pollution from home burning increasing by 124 per cent between 2011 and 2021, partly due to the rise in popularity of wood burners in well-off suburban areas.

Mums for Lungs say that the new figures show the government has failed in its attempts to tackle the damage caused by home burning, which has now replaced vehicle emissions as the biggest source of particulate pollution in the UK.

"The government claims to have 'world leading' legal provisions to address air pollution but our research shows these are abjectly failing," said Jemima Hartshorn, who founded the air quality campaign in Brixton in 2017.

"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."

Eighty local authorities said they haven't used the new powers introduced in 2022 at all, despite air pollution causing up to 36,000 deaths every year across the UK.

"When I walk home through my neighbourhood at dusk, it is impossible to avoid the smell of wood smoke," said Mums for Lungs member Hazel Agombar.

"The growing fad for log burners has resulted in hotspots of toxic, wood smoke air pollution dominating the evening air. It surrounds and seeps into our homes. It is suffocating. It is impossible to escape. It spoils our life. But nothing and no one can protect us from it."

Almost all home burning in the UK is done for non-practical purposes, and campaigners say they want the government to introduce legislation that would phase out domestic wood burning where alternative sources of heat exist.

"As we saw in the last census, almost everyone in Sheffield has gas central heating, so wood fires around here are for aesthetic reasons," said Turnbull.

"I can smell it all the time where I live and I’m upset the council can’t do more about it."

Sheffield City Council have been contacted for comment.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)
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