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Hopes doused? Council confirms Braemar fireplaces still being torn out despite mounting protests

Brian Casey and councillor Geva Blackett had been fighting for the plans to be paused.
Brian Casey and councillor Geva Blackett had been fighting for the plans to be paused.

Aberdeenshire Council has confirmed controversial plans to rip out “vital” coal fires from Braemar homes will still go ahead – despite a heated row about the move.

There has been mounting fury about the change across the community, which is nestled in the Cairngorms and frequently records freezing temperatures.

Locals’ predicament was brought into focus during Storm Arwen when scores of homes were left without power for days.

Many had to rely on their fires to keep themselves and their neighbours warm.

Holyrood hope now dashed?

The six affected council tenants on Balnellan Road and Balnellan Place were offered a glimmer of hope last week when the Scottish Government intervened.

A Holyrood spokesman said the council does not strictly need to rip out the coal fires in order to meet national eco targets for social housing.

But the local authority refuses to budge.

Solar panels have been installed on some of the council properties in the area as part of the environmentally friendly plans.

Fireplace would ‘hinder new heating system’

Aberdeenshire Council’s head of housing and building standards, Rob Simpson, today ruled out any chance of keeping the fires – even as  backup.

He said: “The new heating system is highly effective but an open fireplace will hinder its ability to store heat and operate efficiently.

“This means that if we are to leave a fireplace in a home, we will be unable to install the new system, and this is what we are discussing directly with tenants.

“Many of the existing systems have been in place for 30 years or longer and what we have tried to explain is that if those ageing systems fail beyond repair, we will have no choice but to replace them in the future.

“We are looking to speak directly with the remaining tenants that have raised concerns over the coming week so that final decisions can be made.”

Anger over ‘threatening’ letter

Meanwhile, one Braemar man fighting to keep his fireplace has accused the council of using a “threatening” tone in vowing to forcibly remove it.

The line in the letter which left Barry Huyton feeling “intimidated” states that workers can come in to remove the fireplace at any time if its condition “results in your home becoming unfit for human habitation or it poses a health and safety risk”.

Balnellan Place residents are putting up a fight

He added: “If the pipes freeze because I cannot afford the electric heating the house will become unfit for human habitation.

“Their tone is threatening without understanding what life in Braemar is really like…

“If the temperatures here go really low again, like they do here in Braemar, I will need the back up from my logs.

“If the power goes out again, how do I keep the pipes unfrozen?”

‘I barely use my fire – but I can’t face losing it’

Another villager, Brian Casey, told us that he will fiercely oppose any attempt to remove his coal fire.

Brian Casey and councillor Geva Blackett discussing the situation.

Mr Casey told us the old-fashioned way of heating his home remains needed as “an emergency backup”.

He added: “It has not been lit for 10 years.

“But energy costs are going up, and if we are allowed to keep it I will be getting my bunker filled with coal in case it’s needed.

“We might have to look at using it more.”

The retired RAF Nimrod pilot told us he is now “in the house the whole time” and increasingly wary about his electric spend.

This image from last February shows how hard Braemar can be hit by winter weather.

Not ‘one size fits all’

And the council’s latest refusal comes after Grampian Housing Association added its voice to the growing chorus of concern.

The company’s chief executive, Craig Stirrat, said: “Whilst we need to tackle climate change – we need to consider the needs of people now (fuel poverty) – not one size fits all.”

Geva Blackett is continuing the fight to persuade Aberdeenshire Council to allow Braemar tenants to keep their coal fires.

Councillor Geva Blackett has been campaigning on behalf of affected villagers.

She again today accused local authority chiefs of failing to appreciate that they wish to keep the fires purely as a backup option.

‘It’s a quandary’: Council boss on way forward

Jim Savege sympathises with residents but is eager to find a way forward. Picture by Kami Thomson

Jim Savege, Aberdeenshire Council’s chief executive, pledged that “alternative options” for heating Braemar homes in the event of future power cuts will be looked into.

One such option, he told the Press and Journal, would be to have more generators available locally for those in need.

Mr Savege said: “It’s a quandary in terms of two things we are trying to achieve, which have collided.

“We need energy efficiency, and we need to ensure our homes are resilient.

“But let’s look at what the options are, reconcile these two responsibilities and achieve both of them.

“Generators could be deployed to the community in Braemar, who are phenomenally unfortunate when it comes to the climate and being cut off.”

The council has previously stressed that its plans to move away from coal fires will come with a package of improvements for tenants.