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Heat Crimes: Wood-fired stoves are now a burning political issue – and it’s the last thing the SNP needs

Restrictions applied to new build homes may have a political cost | Alamy

Heat Crimes: Wood-fired stoves are now a burning political issue – and it’s the last thing the SNP needs

From hate crimes, we move to heat crimes as the wood-burning stove ban becomes the latest Scottish Government move to inflame debate.

New rules banning the use of the off-grid heaters in new-build homes and major conversions were ushered in with so little fanfare that they took even MSPs like Kate Forbes by surprise, leaving her seeking “urgent clarification” from the government she so recently was a part of.

Perhaps that’s partly because the ban came into force on 1 April, the same day as new hate crime legislation, which was met with a response that can best be described as volcanic.

So, within the same short recess, we have gone from the hate monster to the grate monster.

Patrick Harvie, minister for zero carbon buildings, tried to put out the fire, saying the change has “nothing to do with existing heating systems,” so householders already using the heaters don’t need to rip them out, and there are “exemptions for emergency heating systems too”.

But the embers have proven difficult to stamp out and the issue has exposed further the Scottish Government’s ‘rural problem’. Stoked up by now-scrapped plans for highly-protected marine areas and the suspended deposit return scheme, which people there said would have a disproportionate impact on their communities, it shows little sign of abating, despite assurances from ministers that they are listening.

Indeed, there is now a name for it: “mainsplaining”, which according to a Twitter user in the Outer Hebrides is “like mansplaining but when central belt folk try telling us islanders they know better than we do about our own political issues”.

News of the regulatory change was broken not by government comms or a public information drive, but by the social media account of an architectural consultancy in Oban which has since been accused of the “political weaponisation” of the change.

The coastal town was not part of Humza Yousaf’s recent mini-tour of rural Scotland, which last week took him to Dingwall and Stornoway. On a visit to a croft, he made a general election pitch to Highlanders and Islanders, saying Scotland’s rural communities have been “repeatedly betrayed” by Westminster” and urging them to back the SNP.

Whatever the good intentions behind the wood-burning stove ‘ban’ – brought in to reduce harmful emissions from heating – its handling has been woeful, with even the forestry sector seemingly unprepared.

“Banning wood-burning stoves is a disaster for us,” wrote the community-owned Isle of Eigg Trust. “They are a key part of our net zero by 2030 strategy,” being “practical and cheap to fit compared to heat pumps” and providing hot water in winter “when solar, thermal, can’t” and undermining efforts to support the local economy through timber harvesting. “The challenge is very real,” the trust said.

“If there is no flexibility in this new condition it will have a massive impact on the affordability and resilience of any new-build croft house,” said the Scottish Crofting Federation, hitting out at “a centralised Scottish Government that does not consider the sustainability of rural and island communities”.

In fact, proposals in the New Build Heat Standard were consulted on in 2021 and 2022. But, brought in by negative instrument, it was not subject to a vote. In its most recent mentions in parliament, the impact on the use of wood-burning stoves was not expressly set out.

Making a statement on heat in buildings in November, Harvie was clear on his position, if not on that detail. “I know that some people in this chamber and beyond regard clean heating merely as a the latest front in a climate culture war. They can expect to be disappointed,” he said. “The days of heating our homes and buildings with fossil fuel and polluting systems are numbered.”

The time for argument over climate change is indeed over, if it ever existed at all, and of course island and rural communities will not be spared the impacts of rising global temperatures.

But the reaction to new stove rules is not a flash-in-the-pan, and it is clear that at least some voters in those communities feel that they are involved in a battle to be seen and heard by decision-makers in the capital.

Perhaps those stakes are lower for Harvie than for Yousaf. After all, though the Greens have announced their intention to stand more candidates in the general election than ever before, they are unlikely to send an eco army to London. There are deposits to lose, but not necessarily reputations for a party which has seen the Scottish Parliament contest as its main electoral focus.

Yousaf, though, won’t want the wood-burning stove ban to send SNP votes up in smoke. But it will take more than a whistlestop tour of northern constituencies to do so. Mainsplaining won’t cut it.

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