Editorial: Plenty of heat left in cleaner air campaign

The smoke signals from the concrete tower have been inconclusive.

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese campaigned on a review of the city's tough woodburner rules. Some other councillors also seem ready to consider a softening of the rules - although one, Tim Skinner, believes a majority of his colleagues have a "blindspot" over just how difficult things are for low and fixed income families unable to afford home heating over winter.

The issue will come to a head yet again tomorrow when Nelson City Council's planning and regulatory committee meets to consider the Nelson Air Quality Plan and its attendant woodburner policy. The policy has produced plenty of heat during the past four council terms. Several new petitions on the issue are gathering signatures, and the likes of Greypower and Nelson Residents' Association will front up in the council chamber tomorrow morning. The meeting is likely to be feisty.

The current plan was produced a decade ago in response to anticipated government demands that local authorities act strongly to reduce air pollution. Since it was introduced, Nelson's air has improved markedly: from being among the very worst in the country - especially around the hospital area and city valleys - to among the best in built-up urban areas.

The council says since the plan's introduction, nearly a third of city houses have moved to more efficient and cleaner forms of heating and-or are now better insulated. It adds this has cost the council and community some $14 million. There can be no doubt our air is cleaner and healthier as a result. Even so, the city is not close to meeting the air quality mark it is obliged to by Government decree by 2020.

On the other hand, energy costs have soared since the new plan was introduced, meaning "cleaner" heating has not come cheaply. Resourceful people with chainsaws and trailers who once had been able to heat their homes at very little cost have since been at the mercy of energy companies, and understandably are not happy given that the price of power, for example, has doubled.

Improved woodburner technology is coming on to the market. Councils in some areas seem more willing to embrace it than is the case in Nelson - another factor in the high level of angst on this issue. If it works in Christchurch, why not here?

Councillors should park their emotions and look at the issue objectively. Hopefully there will be sufficient research and science specific to Nelson to inform their deliberations. If they do opt to consider a rule change, the sooner the better, as it would take at least a year, perhaps more, to draft, introduce and implement a plan change of this nature. It is also very possible that any attempt to relax the regulations would be subject to legal challenge, meaning any change could be two winters away.

The last thing anyone would want is a return to open season on stinking, smoking chimneys every autumn, winter and spring. But the possibility of allowing new generation, highly efficient, thoroughly-tested woodburners to be installed here ought to be re-considered. Perhaps the approach should be based on penalising polluters rather than blanket bans on specific types of systems.