Aberdeenshire Council has been warned that “there will be casualties” as it proceeds with plans to rip out fireplaces from local authority homes.
The council’s housing stock has been undergoing upgrades for several years, with now only a relative handful of coal fires remaining.
The drive to replace them with electric storage heaters comes as part of Scottish Government targets to tackle climate change.
But some residents in Braemar recently launched a fight to save their fireplaces, with their crusade garnering national headlines.
They say the backup heating supply has been crucial when recent storms have wiped out power, allowing them to stay warm and heat food for themselves and their elderly neighbours.
Decisive council meeting on petition to save Braemar fireplaces
Aberdeenshire Council’s communities committee met today to debate a petition from Braemar Community Council asking for the works to be paused.
And even those councillors in favour of continuing with the scheme acknowledged they were facing “really, really difficult choices”.
But ultimately members voted 9-4 to sink the petition, meaning the fireplaces will have to go.
‘We have to tell people… You will go cold’
Stonehaven and Lower Deeside representative, Sandy Wallace, painted a bleak picture as he issued a stark warning of the possible ramifications.
He said: “This is a direction of travel set by the Scottish Government, that is the nub of this.
“We have to choose how seriously we take Net Zero and we are now in a situation that was inevitably going to come.
We have to tell people now, ‘you will go cold on occasion, you will go hungry on occasion’.
“In some fully acceptable circumstances, and they will be rare, there will be casualties.
“But this will have to happen because of our commitment to Net Zero.”
Mr Wallace added that he did not “want Net Zero enough” to “accept these consequences” as he voted to pause the scheme.
Petition to save Braemar fireplaces needed in case of emergency
Members of the Cairngorms community have stressed that their fireplaces do not present much threat to eco targets – as they are purely used as a backup.
Brian Casey told us his “has not been lit for 10 years”.
However, he added: “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.”
Aboyne, Upper Deeside and Donside councillor Geva Blackett has been battling on behalf of the six affected tenants on Balnellan Road and Balnellan Place.
She accused the council of “putting the cart before the horse” in “racing towards an unachievable goal”.
And Mrs Blackett argued that it’s unrealistic to expect residents to attend community centres when they lose power in stormy weather.
She said: “People will not leave their houses to go to centres to get a bowl of soup when the street lights are out and it’s a blizzard.
“We should be pausing the work instead of saying to people ‘it’s one or the other’ and if they don’t accept the upgrades they are stuck with ancient storage heaters.”
Why does the council want to stick to the plan?
Officers explained that leaving some homes out of the upgrades, or only carrying out a portion of the work required at certain properties, would come at the expense of the public purse.
They explained that having to negotiate new arrangements with contractors could prove costly as they urged councillors to overlook the Braemar complaints.
Banff councillor Glen Reynolds agreed that pausing the scheme “would not work”.
He said: “These are really, really difficult choices.
“We are faced with a dilemma, but this is a direction set out by the Scottish Government.”
Council to push for power networks to be made more robust
Committee convener Anne Stirling led calls for the scheme to proceed
But she urged council officers to make their voices heard in national talks on improving fragile power supplies across Scotland.
She added: “We have to try to influence that national discussion, and national strategy.”
Meanwhile, a specialist group of councillors and officers will be formed to help north-east residents struggling with fuel poverty.
‘Braemar tenants let down for no good reason’ as fireplace petition is scorched
Following the meeting, Mrs Blackett said: “When Balnellan residents approached me for help, I promised to do my best.
“Sadly my best wasn’t good enough.
“Today my fellow ward councillor Paul Gibb and I lost our motion for fireplaces to be retained while the policy was reviewed.
“I am sorry because I feel the council’s tenants have been let down for no good reason”
UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, Mrs Blackett resigned from the council’s Partnership opposition group in protest at the “embarrassing” decision.
She claims others on the group “totally ignored” her request for backing, with “blatant lack of support” shown when “the instruction then went out on WhatsApp” to vote against her.
Mrs Blackett will serve the rest of the council term as an unaligned independent member.