Bonfires and COVID-19
Before we go into the rules regarding bonfires in the UK, it is interesting to note that since 2020, many councils have been asking people not to light fires due to the fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and hence smoke may exacerbate the symptoms of those affected. For example, the Royal Borough of Greenwich states on its website, “Bonfire smoke causes air pollution, which can have damaging health effects on everyone. People with existing health problems such as asthma, bronchitis, and heart conditions are especially vulnerable. At this time, people may also be at home with symptoms of COVID-19, which is a virus that severely affects the lungs and respiratory system. We, therefore, urge you to think about your neighbours and avoid having a garden bonfire at this time”. They also point out that because more people have been opening windows to aid ventilation indoors, smoke may become more of a nuisance. Many other councils have followed suit in recommending people not to light bonfires.
What are the regulations on lighting bonfires in the UK?
Bonfires can have a range of negative impacts, including:
- Impairing air quality
- Damaging health – especially in those with respiratory illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis
- Posing an annoyance
- Posing a danger to safety to people, nature, and property
Broadly speaking, there is nothing to stop you from lighting a bonfire as long as it does not cause harm. This is covered in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (as amended) (EPA 1990), which states that it is an offence to dispose of domestic waste if it causes pollution to the environment or harm to human health.
Section 79 of the EPA 1990 specifically states that it is considered a statutory nuisance if “smoke emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance”. This does not apply, however, to:
- smoke emitted from a chimney of a private dwelling within a smoke control area,
- dark smoke emitted from a chimney of a building or a chimney serving the furnace of a boiler or industrial plant attached to a building or for the time being fixed to or installed on any land,
- smoke emitted from a railway locomotive steam engine, or
- dark smoke emitted otherwise than as mentioned above from industrial or trade premises.
In addition, police and local authorities may levy a fine if the smoke from a bonfire drifts across a road, posing a danger to motorists.
As the charity Environmental Protection UK point out, for a bonfire to pose a nuisance to adjacent properties, it would likely need to be a recurrent, persistent problem, interfere substantially with the well-being of neighbours, or impact on their well-being comfort or enjoyment of their property.
What can I do if my neighbour’s bonfire is a nuisance or danger?
The first course of action to take if your neighbour’s bonfire is a cause for concern is to speak to them directly. In most cases, hopefully, they will understand and do what they can to cooperate. Clearly, if a bonfire is already lit and underway, there may be little they can do to stop it, but it may reduce the potential for a reoccurrence in the future.
In some cases, it may be appropriate to raise a complaint with your local authority whose role it is to issue an ‘abatement notice’ if your neighbour’s fire is a statutory nuisance. And if they choose to ignore the abatement notice, they may be issued with a fine. As stated above, for smoke to constitute a statutory notice, and hence to issue an abatement notice, they must be fully satisfied that the smoke is:
- unreasonably and substantially interfering with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises
- injuring health or is likely to injure health
Following your complaint, the local authority will take into consideration the amount of smoke being produced, how often fires are lit and for how long, and how unreasonable the activity is. Only if they are satisfied that there are sufficient grounds will they issue an abatement notice.
If you are concerned about bonfires lit by your neighbour/s, it is always advisable to speak to them directly regarding your concerns. If this is not possible, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods such as mediation and negotiation can be used in the case of more persistent and serious disputes involving bonfires or other activities of concern. ADR avoids the need for the courts to become involved and can lead to a better long term outcome while preserving relationships. This is also advisable where a local authority refuse to intervene to issue an abatement notice. If you are unsure of the best approach, speak to a property law Solicitor who can advise you of your options.
Guillaumes LLP Solicitors is a full-service law firm based in Weybridge, Surrey. We have a highly experienced property law team who can assist you with all matters relating to disputes. To make an appointment, please call us on 01932 840 111.