Current smoke control law and boats

The NBTA is aware of recent reports that boaters have been approached by unspecified people claiming to be officers of Local Authorities with powers to stop them burning wood and/or non-smokeless solid fuel in their stoves and to take enforcement action against them if they refuse. Accordingly we are re-publishing Application of Smoke Control Legislation to Boats on UK Waterways. This document explains the existing law regarding smoke from both domestic stoves and engines on boats. It was written and published by marine surveyor Marcus Jones IIMS in 2013.

2013-03-12 Application of Smoke Control Legislation to Boats on UK Waterways

It is very likely that the law will change soon, but at present the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1993 apply. In summary, unless a boat in a Smoke Control Zone is emitting from its stove or engine “Dark Smoke” as defined by measuring it with a Ringelman chart, it is not in breach of the Clean Air Acts, regardless of whether buildings in the same Zone are prohibited from burning certain types of fuels.

If you are approached by anyone who orders you to put your stove out or claims to enforce Smoke Control or clean air legislation, first ask to see their identification and if possible, photograph it. Then ask them to state what powers they are acting under and to provide you with a written copy of the legislation.

Any notices about local Smoke Control Zones directed at boaters that are found on the towpaths do not apply to boats, no matter how they are worded.

The NBTA advises boaters who can afford it, to burn smokeless fuel if they are travelling in a Smoke Control Zone and not to burn wet or green wood. However, we are aware that many Bargee Travellers are on very low incomes and can only afford to heat their homes by foraging and salvaging scrap and fallen wood. Currently they are within the law to do so providing their stove does not emit “Dark Smoke”.

Both DEFRA and the Mayor of London’s office have recently carried out consultations regarding air quality, including domestic heating fuels. The NBTA has responded to both consultations. See


In its response to the 2018 DEFRA consultation on cleaner domestic burning of solid fuels and wood the NBTA emphasised the following issues:

The vast majority of boat dwellers rely on solid fuel stoves as their only source of heating and the impact of any changes will be severe and immediate. They do not have the choice to move to gas or electric heating. Any changes must take fully into account the impact on boat dwellers.

Boat dwellers, either working or retired, are typically on low incomes and thus more likely to be in fuel poverty.

Unlike the housed population, a significant proportion of boat dwellers burn wood as a primary heat source, and this is particularly true of the poorest boat dwellers, whose main or only source of heating is foraged, waste or donated wood.

Nearly all boat dwellers use wood as kindling to light their solid fuel stoves. Even those who keep their stoves alight around the clock in winter with coal may need to use wood to get the fire going in the morning.

DEFRA must give top priority to supporting and promoting the development and manufacture of low cost, low emission solid fuel for heating.

In order to equalise and mitigate the impact on low income households and those in fuel poverty, financial support must be made available to assist those on the lowest incomes to switch to burning cleaner wood and coal. Given that boat dwellers have been excluded from existing “clean grants” for equipment such as solar panels and insulation, boat dwellers must be included in any grant schemes for clean burn fuels and technology.

As with the rest of the population, the boating community would benefit from cleaner air and we support this objective. However the NBTA is concerned that measures may be taken which have a disproportionate impact on people who live on boats compared to boat dwellers’ relatively low impact on air quality.

Solid fuel stoves on British narrowboats and barges are not a recent fashion. As the primary source of heat, they are a traditional and integral part of boaters’ homes, rather than an aesthetic add-on to an existing central heating system. Solid fuel stoves on boats on the inland waterways are required to comply with the Boat Safety Scheme and therefore have been installed legally and in good faith.

See also this article “We need our stoves” in the Bristol Cable in which live-aboard boater Mike Doherty argues that for anyone living on a boat or in a van during winter, having a stove can be a matter of life and death.