According to the Auckland Council, a planned ban on domestic open fires and the use of old wood burners from 2018 will not involve excessive costs. Try telling that to the people who, as a condition of selling their home, will soon have to remove or replace their pre-2005 wood burner or permanently cover their open fireplace, block the chimney or remove the fire bricks. Doing that and, quite possibly, installing alternative heating to maintain their houses' appeal, will not be cheap. Indeed, it represents an imposition so excessive as to justify opposition to the council's proposal.
Other aspects of the planned bylaw, recommended for adoption this week by the council's regulatory committee, will harden that response. Take the risk of a $20,000 fine if you flout the ban. That hardly tallies with previous council assurances of a pragmatic approach that recognised the difficulties the ban will create for some people, notably the elderly and the poor. Rather, it is symptomatic of a determination to ensure compliance is forthcoming in the quickest possible time.
Without such conditions and with the advantage of a persuasive council education campaign, many Aucklanders might just have been convinced of the need for such a ban. Grudgingly, they may have accepted the desirability of the air-quality standards that the Ministry for the Environment wants met by 2016. But now the over-the-top aspects of the bylaw will surely focus attention on whether there is any need for the ban at all.
Auckland's air-quality levels generally measure up well. On average, the city has exceeded national fine-particle air pollution limits just twice a year over the past five years. That is hardly a long way from the permitted once a year. And the quality is improving. As much as would be expected given that the number of homes using wood and coal has been steadily declining. So has the number of old wood burners and inefficient wood-burning fireplaces. When this bylaw was first mooted in 2012, there were about 78,000 pre-2005 wood burners and 26,000 open fires in Auckland homes. This week, the council put the number of wood burners at 64,000, along with 17,000 open fires.
That is a substantial decrease. There is nothing to suggest the trend will not continue at a similar rate. Old houses are being torn down and the preference in modern structures is for heat pumps and the like. In a relatively short time, any health problem caused by domestic open fires and old wood burners will be very much diminished.
That is not the only reason to query whether the ban is necessary. In winter, domestic fires are said to be the dominant source of the airborne particles that can be fatal to people who are asthmatic or have heart or lung disease, while in summer vehicle emissions take the blame. Two years ago, a council report estimated that air pollution was responsible for 737 premature deaths a year in Auckland. This week, curiously, a figure of just 110 premature deaths was mentioned. However these figures were reached, that represents a substantial downgrading of the danger posed by pollution in the city.
Other New Zealand cities, led by Nelson in 2008, have adopted bans similar to that proposed for Auckland. But in their case, a far smaller number of people have been affected. Equally, a far smaller amount of council officers' time has been devoted to policing the ban.
In Auckland, much time and effort will be spent on a response to a problem that will resolve itself in time. And much unnecessary angst and expenditure will result from the council's draconian approach.