If every season had a signature scent, then Autumn’s would be the smell of bonfires. Not just the giant blazes of the 5th of November when we turn into a nation of pyromaniacs, but all the small garden fires where people burn leaves and garden trimmings after a summer of plentiful growth. But have you ever wondered if all these fires are actually legal? For a country regularly accused of being a nanny state, outdoor fire laws in the UK are actually very lenient.
Unless you live in an area with specific bylaws preventing fires, householders are generally free to have barbeques, firepits, and build bonfires on their own properties. Even in Smoke Control Areas these are allowed in most cases. Councils probably recognise that people burning their garden waste is a more environmentally friendly way of disposal than making multiple trips to the tip in their fossil fuel burning cars.
The government guidance is that you shouldn’t cause a regular nuisance to your neighbours. You should avoid building fires close to buildings or boundary fences and you should avoid burning wet wood and green leaves that produce a lot of smoke. If you do ignore this guidance or make fires a bit too often, then your neighbours are within their rights to lodge a complaint with the council who may issue you with what is known as an abatement notice. Break that and you could face a fine of up to £5,000.
What could get you in immediate trouble is if you break one of the two specific laws relating to outdoor fires:
- You can’t allow smoke from your fire to drift over public roads where it could impede visibility.
- You can’t burn anything that generates dangerous fumes. This includes plastics, flammable liquids like paint or oil, or any container that may have contained chemicals.
It is best to use common sense and err on the side of caution. If you have firepit or chiminea on your patio then make sure it is positioned so that the smoke doesn’t blow into a neighbour’s property. For some asthma sufferers, smoke can be a real trigger and I’m sure you don’t want to be the cause of someone else’s misery.
So far, we have only covered garden fire rules on your own property. What if you are wild camping and want to build a campfire, or maybe a bonfire on the beach? In both cases you should seek permission from the landowner. Just because you are allowed to camp there doesn’t mean you can build a fire. In fact, if your fire gets out of hand or you scorch a bit too much grass then you could be prosecuted for criminal damage. Every beach in the UK is owned by someone – usually the council, the National Trust or a private landowner. Owners of beaches that are popular with holiday makers and have a lot of facilities may not be keen on you building fires. Wilder and deserted beaches are probably the best place for a fire anyway, and you could easily scavenge enough driftwood to not need any additional fuel.
So, in summary, you are usually OK to build contained fires on your own property as long as you watch what you burn and don’t annoy your neighbours. On other people’s property you should always ask permission or risk being prosecuted. Be considerate, clean up after yourself, and enjoy the primeval joy of a great outdoor fire. Don’t forget the marshmallows!