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25 Feb, 2020 17:06

Let ‘em eat cake: UK’s ban on wet wood & coal for cleaner air will hit the poor who can’t afford electric heating – who cares?

Let ‘em eat cake: UK’s ban on wet wood & coal for cleaner air will hit the poor who can’t afford electric heating – who cares?

The UK government’s ban on the sale of coal and wet logs to burn in domestic fireplaces, to be implemented between 2021 and 2023, is ill-thought-out because it will increase fuel poverty and greatly disadvantage the rural poor.

Keep the Home Fires Burning was the name of a hugely popular Ivor Novello song during the First World War. The British government has just released a 2020 cover version. It’s called ‘Keep the Home Fires burning so long as it’s not coal or wet wood burning in them.’ Nowhere near as catchy, is it?

The government is acting, it says, on grounds of public health and in accordance with its ‘Clean Air’ strategy. 

It claims that wet wood (that’s wood with a moisture content of at least 20%), and coal, is responsible for 38 percent of PM2.5 pollution in the UK. PM2.5s are particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter which,  by penetrating deeply into the lung, can cause various diseases. A British Medical Journal research paper found that “positive associations between short term exposure to PM2.5 and risk of hospital admission were found for several prevalent but rarely studied diseases, such as septicemia, fluid and electrolyte disorders.

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So, it has to be good, this banning of wet wood and coal fires, doesn’t it? Well, not if it plunges even more people into fuel poverty – and prevents people from heating their homes adequately. How many deaths will that cause?

The economic backdrop to the government’s announcement, which cannot be ignored, is that according to the latest statistics (from 2017), there are 2.53 million “fuel-poor” households in England, ie 10.9 percent of the total number of households.

National Energy Action puts the figure in Britain as a whole at 3.5mn.

The government says it wants to reduce fuel poverty, but the ban on coal and wet wood for domestic fires goes against this, as they are just about the cheapest ways to heat your home. As cited in the Daily Telegraph, alternatives to traditional coal are estimated to be around  38 percent more expensive, dry wood is around 60 percent dearer than wet wood, which is sold cheaply at many supermarkets and service stations.

It’s easy to forget, in an age where we think everyone has central heating, that there are still 166,000 homes, many in remote rural areas which are not on the gas grid, and where fires are the only option – bearing in mind how expensive electric heaters are. The government’s own figures put the number of households in rural areas on relative low income as 17 percent, after housing costs.

All in all, it’s calculated that the ban will cost households up to £469 million. It’s just what people need after a decade of stagnating living standards and cuts in local services.

There’s also the issue of ban enforcement. How will it work? Are neighbours going to be encouraged to snitch on those still burning coal or the ‘wrong’ kind of wood? Will we see the introduction of a ‘Smoke Stasi’?

The old adage, that an Englishman’s home is his castle, would be severely breached. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should be blase about pollutants being emitted from people’s chimneys, only that we need to be looking at this from another angle.

Instead of banning, the government should be working to make household heating more affordable.

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Setting up a state-owned gas and electricity supplier would be the most effective way of doing this, prices could be reduced as there would be no need to pay dividends to shareholders and foreign investors.

But rather than pursue the common sense option to reduce fuel poverty, the government introduces a measure which will only make the problem worse.

The novelist Evelyn Waugh once bemoaned that the trouble with the Conservative Party was that they had never “put the clock back a single second,” and we can see that in operation once again here.

We all know that coal can be a major pollutant. We’ve heard that a thousand times. But, while I’m as ’green’ as the next man, coal’s effective end in Britain as a household heating fuel makes one feel a little bit sad too, when one considers the part it has played in our national history. I’m old enough to remember the eagerly-awaited visit of the ‘coalman’ who came on his horse to our house in the late 1960s/early 1970s delivering coke to us in sacks carried on his back.

In 1969-70, some 20,989,000 tons of coal was consumed at people’s homes in Britain. Around 290,000 people worked in the coal industry.  

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Britain is built on coal, we probably have more than 1,000 years supplies of  ‘black gold’ beneath us, but Thatcherite dogma closed down the mines and put the miners on the dole queue, thereby destroying the most socially cohesive communities in Britain. Yet, ‘dirty’ coal can be a clean fuel. Various processes can make it ‘eco-friendly.’ With this in mind, coal needn’t be ‘black-balled,’ especially when we have so much of it.  

Ironically just three months before it announced its ban on the sale of coal for domestic fire use, the government decided not to intervene to stop plans for the opening of Britain’s first deep coal mine for many decades.

Where’s the consistency in that?  

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.