Smoke control

City skyline

For many years London, like many built-up areas, had very poor air quality due to the burning of coal in homes and factories. This led to high levels of sulphur dioxide and smoke in the air. In winter “smogs” (a combination of smoke and fog) were fairly common. In 1952, London experienced a smog which lasted for 5 days, leading to the government passing the Clean Air Act in 1956. This was an important moment in public health. This Act allowed local authorities to declare parts of their areas to be “smoke control areas”. A great deal of work was done by local authorities to make sure that open fireplaces were replaced by appliances that used only “smokeless” fuels – either solid fuel or gas. People were also given grants towards the cost of the work.

Under section 20 of the Clean Air Act 1993 it is an offence to allow the emission of smoke from the chimney of a building in a smoke control area, or from a chimney which serves the furnace of any fixed boiler or industrial plant within a smoke control area.

The designation of smoke control areas in towns and cities in the UK made a dramatic difference in air quality, with smoke and sulphur dioxide levels greatly reduced, although in recent years these benefits have been outweighed to some extent by the increase in pollution from vehicles.


Authorised fuels

Only certain fuels – or “authorised fuels” – may be used in a smoke control area. These fuels are specified as such by the Smoke Control Areas (Authorised Fuels) Regulations. These regulations have been much amended over the years as new fuels are authorised.

Unauthorised fuels

Section 23 of the Clean Air Act 1993 makes it an offence for a person to:

  • acquire any solid fuel for use in a building in a smoke control area other than in a building with an exempted fireplace.
  • acquire any solid fuel for use in any fixed boiler or industrial plant in a smoke control area if that plant is not exempted
  • to sell by retail and deliver any solid fuel not an authorised fuel in a smoke control area

Wood burning stove

Exempt appliances

In some circumstances it is permissible to burn solid fuel that is not an authorised fuel in a smoke control area, but only if it is burned in what is called an “exempt appliance”. Exempt appliances are (ovens, wood burners and stoves) that have passed tests to confirm that they are capable of burning an unauthorised or inherently smoky solid fuel without emitting smoke.

Exempt appliances are given that status by legal orders made by the Government and may only be used with their designated fuel. A complete list of exempt appliances and authorised fuels are available on the DEFRA website.

Many wood-burning stoves are “exempt appliances” and residents intending to use these should make sure that this is the case. The description “approved” is sometimes used by suppliers – this is not the same as an “exempt appliance”.

Smoke nuisances

Emissions of smoke which do not fall into the category of “dark smoke” or which are prohibited by the law relating to smoke control areas, may be dealt with by the Council as “statutory nuisances”, and common examples include bonfires and occasionally barbecues.

If the Council is satisfied that a smoke nuisance exists or is likely to recur, a legal notice can be served on the person causing the nuisance, although an attempt may be made to resolve the problem informally first.

If  you want to make a complaint about smoke visit the local reporting page.