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The Great Smog and Smoke Control in the UK

Image: BBC

As early as 1661 the diarist John Evelyn in Fugifugium complained about the smoke from coal fires in London. He proposed creating plantations in the North to grow the, very much cleaner, wood fuel for the capital. But while other countries started introducing clean-air laws - France as early as 1810 - Britain doggedly stuck to its cheap-and-dirty, home-produced coal.

The sort of 'bituminous' coal which is found in Britain burns easily. But it contains lots of sulphur, chlorine and fluorine, pernicious poisons which no sort of ingenious burning can get rid of. Worse, its tarry smoke can mix with damp air to form a clinging smog which invades the lungs. Things came to a head in December 1952 when a series of cold, windless days led to severe smog causing some 6,000 deaths.

The ensuing Clean Air Act of 1956 banned the worst type of coal in 'smokeless zones' and put restrictions on industrial use. But it also banned fuels which competed with the State-owned National Coal Board like wood and peat, and allowed some coal products like coke free reign. It also allowed 'certain fireplaces' to be given absolute exemption from all clean air laws, no matter how much smoke they produced, allowing the N.C.B to get 'exemption' for a range of highly polluting coal stoves. Similar deadly smogs occurred again in 1962 and 1964.

The National Coal Board itself is long gone but the N.C.B exemption still exists, and stove, and fuel, manufacturers spend (2019) about £100,000 a year on purchasing absolute smoke exemption for their products in a unique informal system which is neither dependent on how much smoke is actually created nor is defined in law. It is not clear how effective this system is because the data is not published. Our survey of 2019 suggests that complaints of smoke from house chimneys across the UK may run at about 6,500 a year, of which about 1-in-5 (16 per week, more than 2 a day) can't be actioned because the smoke is from a stove which has 'exemption'.

In France, Flamme Verte maintains a public database of stove performance: www.flammeverte.org
Questions and answers on EU Clean Air policy
Ireland has a simpler approach and simply banned the most polluting fuels - bituminous coal and high-sulphur coke.
The Gothenburg Protocol, an international agreement on pollution passing across borders.
List of UK exempt fireplaces: https://smokecontrol.defra.gov.uk/appliances.php?country=all
UK Smokeless Zones: https://www.uksmokecontrolareas.co.uk/locations.html

John Evelyn's 'Fugifumium' of 1661

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