The members of Offaly County Council have called on the government to show some commonsense and abandon its cliff-edge turf ban plan.
All the councillors bar one supported a motion put forward by Councillor Ken Smollen during the May monthly meeting of Offaly County Council which called on the government to row back back on its plan.
Cllr Smollen told the meeting that he wanted the government to abandon for the time being its aim to stop the commercial sale of turf, until an affordable alternative should become available.
“The government must take into consideration,” he said, “that many thousands of families depend on the use of commercially purchased turf for heating and cooking in their homes.”
Cllr Smollen's motion was seconded by Cllr Seán O'Brien.
“Thousands of families,” commented Cllr Smollen, “many of them in Offaly, are facing fuel poverty. The government's plan to stop the commercial sale of turf from September onwards is causing huge concern to many people that we represent as councillors. They are facing fuel poverty. We all want cleaner forms of energy but that costs a lot of money, money which these people simply don't have.”
Cllr O'Brien said it is unintelligent and insensitive to expect people who have been using turf for many years to simply abandon it. He said it was like a guillotine was being brutally and harshly applied to the issue. Cllr O'Brien said he feels the plan smacks of a D4 thought process, whereby people with no regard or understanding of rural areas are making harsh and incorrect decisions. “It is obvious that the people who are making these decisions are not really cognisant of what rural Ireland is all about.”
Cllr O'Brien strongly criticised the government's retrofitting and insulation programme. “It is ridiculously slow,” he remarked. “It is a failure thus far, simply because an awful lot of people can't afford it.”
Cllr O'Brien pointed out that turf-cutting is in many people's DNA. “They have cut at small banks of turf for years, and it is painful for them to think of giving that up. Seeing briquettes from foreign countries in our shops and forecourts makes them very angry; they see it as being farcical.”
Cllr Mark Hackett opposed the motion. Cllr Hackett said the government is backing a clean air policy because smoky fuel like coal and turf has been linked to cancer and to death, causing about 1300 deaths in Ireland per year. “This is about human health. It is about saving lives,' commented the councillor. “We must protect the citizens of this country. I am putting forward a counter-motion stating that the government supply extra funding to help people transition to wood pellet stoves.”
Cllr Hackett added that the government's policy will mean we won't see lignite briquettes from abroad being sold in our shops anymore. “Therefore Cllr O'Brien is throwing up something of a red herring in this regard. The government is conscious of foreign imports of fuel and will stop it happening.
“The government is also saying that it will support people on low incomes. This means that no one will suffer on account of this clean air strategy.
“All of us in this Council chamber know and accept that turf is on the way out.”
Cllr John Foley said he one hundred percent supported Cllr Smollen's motion.
Cllr Leahy said he understood where Cllr Hackett was coming from but he had to go with Cllr Smollen. “I think Ken wins the argument on this occasion,” remarked Cllr Leahy. “We all want cleaner air, but this is being rushed. We need more time to bring about an affordable alternative for peat. A lot of people are coming to me and are asking me to look into the SEAI grants. The SEAI grants are too expensive. You are spending two thirds to get a third. The SEAI grants are not fit for purpose. Turf is a lifeline for people and it should remain so until we find a decent alternative. We all know turf is on the way out but it's not being done right.”
Cllr Smollen pointed out that 43% of people in Offaly depend on solid fuel for heating and cooking. Most of these people don't have turbary rights, nor will they get gifts of turf from relatives or friends. Most people buy their peat in shops or from local vendors. The match funding for the retrofitting grants can be €30,000 to €40,000, a sum which many people don't have. “The government's plan is dreamland stuff.”
He said the transition period away from turf was supposed to be over the 2020s until 2030, but the fast forward button has been applied to it.
Cllr Smollen was sceptical about the health claims. “While 1300 die each year on a nationwide basis I would hazard a guess that very few, if any of them are from Offaly. A lot of elderly people have sat beside turf fires for decades and it didn't do them any harm because they reached ripe old ages.”
He added that there should be grants to encourage people to transition from turf burning to wood pellet stoves. “It costs €7,000 to install a wood pellet stove, money which a lot of people don't have.”
“The government badly needs to revisit its retrofitting programme,” reiterated Cllr O'Brien. “Our county needs a longer time to transition away from turf.”
Cllr Eamon Dooley pointed out that during the May meeting of Birr Municipal District the Senior Engineer in the Housing Section of the Council told the councillors that tenants in new Council houses won't be allowed to have wood pellet stoves. The houses will be heated by heat pumps. No naked flames, in heating formats, will be permissible. “The Council is talking about air to water heat pumps in the new houses,” remarked Cllr Dooley, “which is sometimes underfloor heating, sometimes via radiators in the rooms. Unfortunately installing heat pumps with underfloor heating can cost up to €80,000.
“You know, we had to support the banks during the financial crash; now I think the government should support the lads with the turf banks.”
Cllr Tony McCormack agreed with Cllr Smollen's motion. “The plan to stop the commercial sale of turf from September onwards has been ill thought out,” he remarked. “We are in the throes of a cost of living crisis. To ask people to stop burning turf during this crisis will cause huge problems. I can't support this outright ban. The government talks about neighbours and relatives gifting turf to others. What about all those who are not in the way of receiving these gifts? I'd be sceptical as well about the government providing extra funding to those who wish to transition to pellet stoves. We all know how slow, if not non-existent, such funding streams can be.
“Besides, it's possible that because of the war in Ukraine we may see rationing in oil and gas. This might mean that turf will be the only source of heating for people.
“I hear the arguments about air safety. I understand them. I have sympathy for them. But this is all being done too quickly and with not enough consideration for people.”
Cllr Eddie Fitzpatrick said working on the bog is very hard work. “I don't know anyone who likes working on the bog. You know, even people with air to water heat pumps are being hit with higher costs. Wood pellet costs are going up. It is very unfair to suddenly stop everything in September.”
“There is merit in what Mark is saying,” commented Cllr Danny Owens, “and I agree with him to a certain extent; but the timescale is all wrong. It is badly thought out, where you are just cutting it off at the stump and people are left in a difficult position.”
Cllr Declan Harvey, Cathaoirleach, said he will continue to burn turf “for as long as I can get it. If they tell me to stop burning it in September I will continue to fill my shed with turf. They will have to clear out my shed, because I won't do it.”
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