AA Legal Documents
Law guide

Bonfires

Contents

Bonfires can cause localised air pollution and annoy neighbours. There are no specific laws governing the use of bonfires, but there are laws covering their impact on others and the environment. Pollution from bonfires can fall within the definition of statutory nuisance.

For more information, see our section on 'Pollution'.

Preventing problems

Bonfires cause environmental difficulties for the following reasons:

  • They add to air pollution
  • Burning garden waste produces smoke, especially if the waste is damp and smoulders
  • Burning plastic, rubber or painted materials not only creates an unpleasant smell, but also produces a range of poisonous compounds
  • Bonfire smoke may cause problems for asthmatics, bronchitis sufferers, people with heart conditions and children
  • Bonfires can cause annoyance to neighbours and the smoke, soot and smell from bonfires are the subject of many complaints to local councils
  • Excessive smoke may prevent your neighbours from enjoying their gardens, opening windows or hanging washing out, and reduces visibility in the neighbourhood and on roads
  • Any bonfire is a potential fire risk
There are many other ways to get rid of your garden waste:

  • You can make compost from your garden waste - find out more from the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) which provides tips on how to make compost
  • Your local council may run composting schemes such as the supply of reduced cost compost bins
  • Your local council may collect garden waste for a small charge
  • Use a shredder to reduce small branches and twigs to chippings which you can spread on the garden as a mulch to reduce weeds, as well as to maintain soil moisture
  • You may be able to take it to a special composting area operated by your local council
If you decide a bonfire is the best practicable option for disposing of garden waste, follow these guidelines from the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection (NCSA) to avoid causing serious nuisance:

  • Only burn dry material
  • Never burn household rubbish, rubber tyres, or anything containing plastic, foam or paint
  • Never use old engine oil, methylated spirits, petrol or any other volatile, flammable substance to light the fire or encourage it
  • Avoid lighting a fire in unsuitable weather conditions - smoke hangs in the air on damp, still days and in the evening
  • Be considerate to your neighbours - if it is windy, smoke may be blown into neighbours' gardens and across roads
  • Avoid burning when air pollution in your area is high or very high – check the weather forecast or the air quality website
If you are bothered by a bonfire

If bothered by smoke, approach your neighbour and explain the problem. You might feel awkward, but they may not be aware of the distress they are causing, and it will hopefully make them more considerate in the future. If this fails, contact your local council's environmental health department. They must investigate your complaint and can issue a nuisance abatement notice. You can also take private action in the magistrates' court.

If the fire is only occasional, it is unlikely to be considered a nuisance in law. Similarly, if you are being troubled by bonfires from different neighbours, each only burning occasionally, a nuisance action would be difficult as there are several offenders.

The law regulating the impact of bonfires

In England and Wales, bonfires can fall within the definition of a statutory nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1990 if they are a persistent problem, interfering substantially with your well-being, comfort or enjoyment of your property. For a discussion of the law relating to statutory nuisance, see our 'Pollution' section.

If a bonfire of industrial/commercial waste is emitting black smoke, it is dealt with under the Clean Air Act 1993 in England & Wales and the Clean Air (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 (as amended) in Northern Ireland; this includes the burning of such material in your garden.

In addition, under the Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006 and the Waste Management (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2006, it is an offence to dispose of domestic waste in a way likely to cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health. In practice, you should not burn waste that is likely to create excessive smoke or noxious fumes. If only dry garden waste is burnt, your bonfire should not cause a problem.

Finally, in England and Wales, under the Highways Act 1980, anyone lighting a fire and allowing smoke to drift across a road, faces a fine if it endangers traffic. Contact the police in this case.

Legal action

Some nuisance problems only happen occasionally, and it may not always be possible for an environmental health officer to witness it. Some local authorities may find it difficult to deal with nuisance problems as fully as they might like, because of staff shortages. If for any reason they do not feel able to take action, you can take action yourself through the magistrates' court under Section 82 of the EPA or Article 39 of the Pollution Control and Local Government (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. This is dealt with in our 'Pollution' section.

Barbeques

Barbeques can also cause a smoke problem - especially if you use lighter fuel. If the weather is still and sunny, a barbeque will contribute to photochemical smog (this is formed in the summer, by the action of sunlight on pollutants). Barbeques contribute to air pollution on still sunny days. Avoid the temptation to use volatile fuels for lighting them.

Again, be considerate. If you are having a barbeque, tell your neighbours. Don't ignite it when they've got their washing out, and if it's windy, check that smoke won't blow straight into neighbouring properties.... and keep the noise down!