People living in rural Ireland must get greater State supports and subsidies to encourage a move away from the burning of certain fuels, rather than ultimatums and demands, according to senior Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s News at One, the former minister said that he had no problem with a State-wide ban on the burning of smoky coal because this was included in the Programme for Government, but there was no agreement about curbs on other types of solid fuel.
“I accept and appreciate where the Minister is coming from and what he wants to achieve. I have no problem with his proposal in this consultation paper to extend the banning of smoky coal – there is a commitment in the Programme for Government to do so and extend the existing ban to new towns with a move towards a national ban.
“But there is no such commitment with regard to the banning of peat and timber. I say that in the context of having negotiated the agreement on behalf of my party, but also in the full knowledge that 13.6 per cent of households nationally burn solid fuel.
“In Offaly that figure is 40 per cent so even if you allow for 50 per cent of those using a complementary source, one in five use turf as a primary source of heat, of hot water, and in many cases, in cooking.”
Those households would need to be offered incentives and grants to make the transition towards alternative sources of power.
“I can’t meet constituents and issue ultimatums and demands to them supported by new laws when I can’t afford them the opportunity or the option of transition and alternatives.”
The cost of a full retro-fit was €25,000, he said and people who used solid fuels did not have such funds available to them to make that transition.
Mr Cowen acknowledged that 1,300 people died with respiratory issues in 2018, but said that huge progress had been made in the past 30 years since the first ban on smoky coal had come in.
“We’ll make more progress – the planning and legislation now is such that you can’t have an open fire in a house that’s constructed today – there are a diminishing amount of people who still use it as a primary source, but those people can’t be issued with ultimatums, they have to be assisted, cajoled, helped and grant aided to help make the change – and I as a member of a government party have committed to that in the Programme for Government and until we have those in place only then can you assess what progress we’ve made and we will make more progress.”
Mr Cowen pointed out that alcohol played a leading role in deaths, but he was not looking for a ban on the sale of alcohol or the licensing of premises. “We’re helping the system in other ways in that area as well as in this area, this is a move in the right direction.
“I aspire to cleaner air quality, as we all do in the interests of public health, we’re all green, we all want to achieve the same goals. We want to bring people with us to achieve that progress and those goals.”
The available funding was not sufficient, he added. It cost €12,000 to convert to a heat pump, but the grant was only €3,500.
“My constituents cannot afford that. They have to be given greater help and assistance and then progress will be made and we’ll move to a better place. I want that to happen as much as anyone else irrespective of what party they represent, but we’ve reached an agreement with our colleagues and well work to implement it in the Programme for Government.”