When news emerged that the use of wood-burning stoves was now banned in new-build properties, it came as quite a shock to forestry professionals in Scotland. Giving his take on the move is Forest Policy Group member Jamie McIntyre, a freelance forester and co-ordinator of the Woodland Crofts Partnership. 

The forestry sector is wont to cast a mildly envious glance at the agricultural sector for the place it appears to have in people’s hearts, both politicians and public. In Scotland the former disburse roughly 10 times the amount of public funding to farmers as compared with forestry, while the latter respond readily to slogans like ‘no farmers, no food’ and raise no questions about that largesse.

So imagine, if you will, that the government were to introduce new rules covering building standards for new farmhouses with the laudable aim of improving their quality and performance. But then an eagle-eyed farmer spotted that under the new rules, whilst a farmhouse kitchen could cook and consume supermarket food, they would not be permitted to cook and consume food grown on the farm in question.


You can just imagine the outcry – before long, tractors would be on the streets of Westminster, with disgruntled farmers headlining the six o’ clock news. But that is the equivalent of what the Scottish Government has just done regarding biomass heating in new-build homes – which is now banned, as of 1 April 2024. Not just in urban areas where ready alternatives exist, but everywhere. Even when the woodfuel is grown on the same property as the house being heated, with zero ‘fuel miles’, and supporting sustainable woodland management.

As co-ordinator of the Woodland Crofts Partnership, this is my particular focus of concern regarding the new rules (woodland crofting being the forestry variant of crofting, which is a traditional system of land tenure unique to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland). Crofting rarely provides self-sufficiency in produce or income, but makes a valuable contribution to both nonetheless. In the case of a woodland croft we used to be able to say ‘whatever else your new croft might provide you with, as a minimum you’ll be self-sufficient in heating fuel’, which with today’s high energy prices is a very significant benefit.

Not any more. A woodland crofter can grow firewood for others, and if they have a draughty old croft house, they can continue to burn it (wastefully) there. But design and build a modern, efficient croft house, and what little heat it requires (which would mainly be for domestic hot water) cannot be provided from the wood the crofter grows himself. This is despite the fact that the price of electricity – the suggested alternative fuel – in the crofting areas is amongst the highest anywhere in the country.

And while my own focus is woodland crofts, the same scenario plays out in a much wider range of circumstances. The farmer, persuaded to plant trees on the farm, can’t now burn his own wood in his new farmhouse. The small woodland owner, lucky enough to get planning approval for a new house in or next to his wood, can’t now burn his own wood in it. And returning to crofting, a ‘traditional’ crofter may have rights to cut peat for fuel – especially important for those in the more treeless parts of the Highlands – but now finds that he will not be able to burn it in any new house he builds.

Now, there are lots of reasons why biomass use needs to be controlled. Frankly, burning imported biomass to generate electricity inefficiently (you’ll struggle to get 35–40 per cent efficiency doing that) is crazy for all sorts of reasons, not least that it is a terrible waste of fuel when the best biomass-to-heat appliances can deliver 90+  per cent efficiency.

There’s a genuine concern about air quality in urban areas, and also about the inefficiency of some appliances (for example when heating water in ‘wet’ systems, if not using a purpose designed log boiler). And whilst unpalatable, there would at least have been a logical coherence to banning biomass heating completely, or at least from urban areas, if it was judged no longer to be acceptable as compared with the alternatives.

But this is where the whole argument breaks down. As mentioned earlier, there is no current ban on biomass in existing properties, not even in urban areas - only in new ones. Indeed, you can still apply for grants to install biomass heating in such properties, even whilst you are banned from installing it in new ones. Biomass heating continues to be supported in other contexts and there is ongoing discussion about the role it might play in the future. Meanwhile the new rules treat electric heating, whether via heat pump or direct, as zero emission at point of use at the same time as explicitly acknowledging that there are emissions associated with its generation! The whole thing is, quite frankly, a bùrach as we say in these parts.

Forestry Journal:

A final word on the consultation that preceded these changes, as government spokesmen and sundry defenders of the new arrangements have been quick to insist that they were ‘widely consulted on’. I confess this passed me by completely.

But here’s the thing – it seems to have passed the wider forestry sector (the people that produce the biomass) by too, judging by the lack of responses to it from them. Certainly the chatter on social media supports this view. 

I did belatedly track down the consultation, and read the analysis of responses.

And here lies the final twist in the tale: the responses themselves called for a rural exemption to the ban – but this call was then ignored. Why?

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.