Ban on wood burners threatens British boat-dwellers with winter freeze

<span>Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

People who live on narrowboats and barges – many on low incomes – say they may struggle to stay warm this winter because an increasing number of councils are planning to fine people burning wood on moored vessels.

Under the Environment Act, which came into force in 2021, council enforcement officers can issue on-the-spot fines of up to £300 to boat dwellers emitting visible smoke from wood burners. Only Sandwell council, in the West Midlands, has so far approved plans to enforce smoke controls along its 41 miles of canals. But three other councils – Liverpool, Newham and Cannock Chase – are planning to start fining houseboats.

The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA), which represents thousands of itinerant people living on Britain’s waterways, said most boaters did not have an alternative way of heating their boats, unlike almost all residential homeowners with wood-burning stoves.

“The vast majority of boats are fitted with solid-fuel stoves,” said Jack Saville from the NBTA. “Many poorer boaters cannot afford smokeless fuels or the latest stoves. Some rely on foraged wood, donated wood or waste wood, which gives off more smoke. They do it out of desperation, not out of choice. So the threat of fines from an increasing number of councils could stop these often vulnerable people from heating their houseboats this winter.”

There are estimated to be 30,000-50,000 people living on boats across the UK. About 15,000 are itinerant, moving from mooring to mooring. According to the annual survey of boaters by the Canal and River Trust, almost a quarter are disabled and 70% are pensioners.

Boaters staying on the canals crossing Sandwell fear the crackdown could lead to deaths this winter. Lotte, who travels in her 12m narrowboat Little Ease throughout the Midlands, said the prospect of fines could frighten some vulnerable boaters: “What is the alternative? Do they expect people to sit there in an iced-up boat? They are going to find blocks of ice dead in the morning.”

Lotte, 51, sometimes burns foraged wood as well as briquettes in her 15-year-old stove to stay warm. “It does get cold in the winter. Our boat is a long thin tube of metal sat in water and sometimes solid ice,” she said. “We have hoodies and we live in them during the winter.”

She said financial support should be made available to help itinerant boaters find less polluting ways to heat their homes. Only boats with permanent mooring are eligible to be partially reimbursed for upgrading their stoves. “They should offer grants to the vulnerable and the disabled so they can change their appliances.”

While boaters have always burned wood, there has been a boom in homeowners installing log burners in recent years. Government figures show toxic pollution from domestic combustion has almost doubled in the past decade, with the chief medical officer warning that even the most modern stoves emit 450 times more pollution than central heating. Research has linked the small particles released when wood is burnt to miscarriages, low sperm count and stunted lungs in children. It can also cause chronic illnesses, cancer and strokes.

Atmospheric shot of narrowboats on the Shropshire Union Canal
Narrowboats on the Shropshire Union Canal. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Saville, who lives on a boat and moves from place to place across the UK, said most boaters accepted air pollution was harmful: “They know wood smoke is dangerous to health, including their own. But they need to stay warm. They should not be criminalised for what is basically survival.”

Councils are unlikely to have the resources to regularly monitor the output of people’s chimneys so they will rely on public complaints. The NBTA said this could be abused by residents hostile to itinerant lifestyles. “There is a risk that the smoke controls could be used to move on boaters,” said Saville. “Unfortunately there is an issue with resentment towards itinerant populations here in the UK.”

Sandwell council said: “Air pollution is a significant issue in Sandwell and some of the most harmful man-made air pollutants are emitted from wood and coal burning stoves, which is why we are introducing a borough-wide Smoke Control Area.

“This does not ban domestic solid fuel burning, but it will require residents to take responsibility over the fuels they burn and to consider using exempt appliances.”

Defra said councils were required to consult boat owners on smoke controls and consider the impact on vulnerable groups: “Our Environment Act made it easier for local authorities to reduce pollution from domestic burning in smoke control areas.”