Auckland Council on Thursday enacted a completely unenforceable bylaw over the use of domestic fires. 

The Air Quality Bylaw for Indoor Domestic Fires 2017 replaces expired legislation and hands out $20,000 fines for people who burn the likes of high sulphur coal and tanalised timber in their fireplaces. 

But enforcement officers have no power to go onto people’s properties to nab offenders. They can knock on your door, but you don’t have to let them in.  

The subsequent debate led to councillor Ross Clow sighing: “It all seems a bit pointless, doesn’t it?” 

The issue has lit up the council before – in 2014 a plan to ban pre-2005 wood and coal burners, and open fireplaces in 75,000 homes across the city was voted down. The main reason – because a little pollution was better than having residents who couldn’t afford to run heaters, freezing to death. 

This watered-down regulation lets you keep your old fireplace, but restricts what you can burn in it. Nothing that will contaminate the air, including plastic, rubbish, paint, solvents, or green waste. Coal must not have a sulphur content of more than 0.5 percent. 

The legislation states “The council may use its powers under the Local Government Act 2002 to enforce this bylaw”.

Turns out those are really powers of persuasion. Not only can an enforcement officer not enter your home unless invited, but the council has no powers to make sure retailers are selling safe fuel. That’s a central government job. The council’s general manager of community and social policy, Kataraina Maki, said legislation covers a person who uses material in their fireplace, but not the retailer. Mayor Phil Goff: “We should draw that to the attention of the Government. It’s patently ridiculous.” 

To complicate matters for the coal-burner who wants to do the right thing, Councillor Chris Darby says there are no indications on bags of coal sold commercially as to how much sulphur they contain. The proportion of fires using coal as fuel is less than 1 percent, but that’s no consolation if your neighbour is the one doing it.  

Darby’s real issue is the lack of ambition of the bylaw, and its failure to address what figures suggest are the 110 deaths of Aucklanders a year from particulates in the air from fires. “This week everybody is lighting their first fires of the year. On Monday night the air temperature dropped to 2 degrees, which is low for Auckland, and without the wind from the south-west that cleans the city you could see the smoke across the city from Bombay.” Darby pointed out 170 people die in car crashes across Auckland a year – “We make a lot of fuss about that. But there are 110 deaths from pollutants and we should be doing something about it.” 

Councillor John Watson said the bylaw represented a compromise. “Clean air is a major concern, but so is warm homes.” While Environment Canterbury had managed to clean up Christchurch by banning fires, he pointed out it did so with a targeted rate that rasied $58 million over 10 years – and a massive publicity campaign to get the populace on side. There was clearly no appetitie to ask more of Auckland ratepayers just now. 

Councillor Dick Quax reminded the meeting of the uproar the last time an attempt was made to ban fires. “People want to be warm in winter. They don’t want to be filling up the halls of hospitals when they are overcrowded with people with the flu. I think we have arrived at a pretty good place. It’s not ideal. But I would ask councillors (to act) in the interests of your constituents who will face huge power bills if they are suddenlty told that they can’t use their fireplaces any longer.” He pointed out that over time there will be better air quality as wood fires go out of commission – and that Auckland’s air quality has actually improved over the last two decades. “This is a pragmatic step.”

Mayor Phil Goff said the Council couldn’t afford to have toothless legislation – “that brings us into disrepute”. He suggested an added clause for repeat offenders who continued to thumb their noses at the rules  – that “staff report back to the council on the cases of repeat offending against the bylaw and options for the necessary enforcement in those cases.” 

Maki took the council over what other areas of the country had done, including drastic measures taken in Rotorua – but she said, at one stage that city’s air pollution was being compared to that of China. She pointed out that the big emmisions offender in Auckland isn’t fires at all – it’s cars. And banning all the fires in Auckland won’t fix that problem. 

The legislation passed, 13 votes to 3.

Leave a comment