Bonfires: what are the rules and when are they a nuisance?

Autumn is bonfire season: but when is a bonfire breaking the law, and what to do about it?

(Image credit: imortalcris/Getty)

For many of us, bonfires are synonymous with autumn fun: the smell of smoke drifting through the garden air and toasting marshmallows are a favourite childhood memory for lots of people. That guy next door who loves burning stuff every weekend? Not so much. 

So, if a neighbour's bonfire burning habit is ruining your own time spent outdoors, then it's becoming a nuisance. 

But what can you do about this problem? Last week we reported on the potentially severe legal implications of trimming your neighbour's bushes, but there are no such stringent laws around bonfire burning. 

Bonfire rules in the UK are complicated by their vagueness. It's not illegal to light bonfires, and there are no official restrictions on when how often they can be burned. 

Some people believe that it's against the law to burn a bonfire on a weekend or late in the evening, but this is simply not true. However, there are environmental laws that stipulate against a bonfire causing harm to health, the environment, or to the neighbours' enjoyment of their property by producing excess smoke. For the local council to consider a bonfire a nuisance, it must happen regularly over a period of time. 

Confused? Here is what you should and shouldn't do, whether you are the one lighting the bonfire, or the neighbour suffering its effects.

The rules if you light a bonfire in your garden

If you are the one lighting a bonfire, doing it correctly can prevent many of the problems associated with them, and help you avoid any complaints. Consider the following:

  • What time to light your bonfire: while legally you can do this any time of day or night, it is common courtesy to plan your bonfire in a way that it finishes burning at dusk. Early morning and early evening are the best times for bonfires. 
  • Let your neighbours know: while you can't coordinate your bonfire around all your neighbours, letting them know you're planning to burn one will help them plan any washing they might have been hanging out, or how they'll use their garden that day.
  • Avoid burning wet or green matter: this will almost certainly cause excess smoke that will annoy your neighbours. Most councils collect green garden waste separately – or you can compost it. 
  • Do not burn straw or hay: this is a fire hazard and prohibited by most councils.
  • Do not burn rubber, oil, or plastic: this violates environmental protection laws. If it burns black, you shouldn't be burning it.
  • It is against the law to have smoke drift onto a public highway. You could be fined £5,000 if this happens.  

What to do if your neighbour's bonfire is a nuisance

If you are on the receiving end of nuisance garden bonfire burning, these are your options:

  • Talk to your neighbour: most people are simply unaware of the effects their bonfires are having on others, rather than being malicious. It's likely your neighbour will be able to take steps to make their bonfire less smoky, or agree not to have them so often.
  • Keep a log and record: remember, the council needs proof that the bonfires are occurring regularly. So, start keeping a log of how often they happen, and, even better, record them on your phone. 
  • Inform the environmental health department of your council. They will then issue your neighbour with a notice.