My bank holiday and a filthy fire – eleven days later

Last week on Wednesday morning I wrote a post to celebrate the council’s repairing some broken bonfire links on its website.  I’d found them on the May Day Bank Holiday when I had described a filthy fire which had rather spoiled the day.

At midday that same Wednesday I heard from the Strategic Regulatory Services Manager:

Bank Holiday fire

“I understand from my Colleague XXX that you have enquired as to why no out of hours Pollution Control Service is provided by the Council. The Council though having a duty to provide a Pollution Control Service has no legal responsibility to provide an out of hours service I am afraid, the decision as to the level of resources put into providing the service and the hours it operates is one in law for the Council to decide.  The Council to my knowledge has never provided a out of hours service and has certainly not during the last 7 years.

In what is an extremely challenging financial climate difficult decisions have to be made with regards to service provision, and that does result in services Pollution Control being no exception having to operate within financial constraints. From both an efficiency perspective, looking at the most effective use of staff time, and a financial one, budgets having already been set  for the year, it is not possible to provide an out of hours service in Peterborough this year.

It is appreciated that at times having an officer on call may be helpful to a member of public, officers are however still able through planned measures, to operate when necessary at different in order to gain evidence of any offences being committed. In recent times officers have been able to attend a site at a weekend following prior arrangements in order to observe an illegal bonfire which was known to take place regularly, evidence obtained resulted in the case being put before the courts.

In your particular case XXX will continue to liaise with you over the problems you are experiencing.”

This response confirms the absence of any out of hours toxic fire procedure.  It suggests that the council is content with this situation.  If, as happened on Monday, the fire service tells the resident that use of their emergency number is not appropriate, the resident has no way to get a toxic fire put out.

Then on Friday I the Pollution Control Officer said:

“Following our conversation earlier this week, I can now provide an update on the issue of the bonfire.

I have spoken to XXX from the Fire Brigade and he is reasonably confident that following the warnings given both by him and his colleagues to the person on site and the Fire Brigade’s action in extinguishing the fire, the problem is unlikely to recur at this particular site.

Given this, the council have decided not to take legal action at this time. The reasons for this are as follows:

  1. The most useful legislation for dealing with bonfires is the Clean Air Act. However this Act only applies to “trade or industrial premises” or to waste being burned at a site as part of a business’ activities. The premises in question is a domestic property and there is no evidence that the waste was part of the activity of a business – certainly the fire brigade do not believe any of it was brought to the site from elsewhere and the landlord is (at the moment) essentially the occupier of the premises as it is vacant.
  2. For domestic properties, the primary legislation is the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), which has two main provisions that apply here: Statutory Nuisance and the requirements in relation to duty of care and proper disposal of waste.
    • Statutory Nuisance law is rarely applied in ‘one-off’ circumstances because it is much easier to prove the existence (or likely occurrence/recurrence) of a nuisance if it has happened more than once.
    • Burning waste such as that which was burned on Monday is against the provisions laid down in the EPA for the proper disposal of waste. However, the burden for the success of legal action on this would fall very much on yourself and the fire officer as given that no officer of the council witnessed the event (for reasons I hope XXX has explained in his email to you) our effectiveness will be limited.
  3. Additionally, there are a number of tests that must be applied to any intended legal action in order to ascertain whether it is reasonable and proportionate and in the public interest. The council believe that prosecuting an individual for a first offence of this nature is not reasonable or proportionate and would not be likely to result in a particularly harsh penalty to act as a deterrent.

For these reasons, it is not felt that the time, effort and cost required in taking a case to court are justifiable. Yesterday a hand-delivered letter was issued warning of the potential consequences of any further occurrence. Please can you continue to monitor the situation, and should there be a recurrence of the problem we will investigate the likely occurrence of a nuisance.

Should you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in touch. …”

I am suggesting that we need a working procedure open and available to anybody who wants to get a toxic fire put out and investigated outside the council’s working hours. 

As things stand I must dial 999 even though the fire service doesn’t consider these events merit an emergency call.


My bank holiday and a filthy fire – two days later

Bank Holiday fire

On Bank Holiday Monday I posted a story about a filthy fire.  As I said in that post, I had left a message asking the council’s Environmental Health Officer to phone me back.  The message was left with the council’s emergency out of hours service.

By 09:40 on Tuesday morning I had not received a phone call, so I phoned the council.  The main switchboard told me that the council did not have an Environmental Health Officer (see Note 1 below) and asked me what my call was about.  She wanted to know whether to direct my call to “pollution” or “safety”.  I opted for pollution.

By chance I was put through to the “pollution officer” for my district.  He told me that he was one of three pollution officers for the unitary authority area of Peterborough.  He hadn’t received my message from the emergency out of hours service (and as I write this post he hasn’t emailed me to tell me he’s found it), so I briefed him on what had happened.  How the fire service had put the fire out once toxic materials were found on it.  And he confirmed that burning the kinds of items described would constitute an offence under the Clean Air Act

I asked him about the council’s out of hours service which fails to provide a mechanism for either putting out a toxic fire, getting council staff to the event, or even reporting it, or even getting a message through.  He explained that there would be a high level decision determining spending on this service and that he would try to help me understand where that decision had been made.  Meanwhile he said that the emergency services should certainly be called if all else failed. He mentioned how noise nuisances are regularly reported to the police out of hours.  He said he would go and inspect the situation.  This particular fire I will now stop posting about until I know whether or not the council decides to prosecute.

He rang me back later in the day to report on progress and agreed to ask a colleague to give me a call about how the council had made its decisions about out of hours services.  He also told me that the broken links had been fixed and would be correct on the website by the morning.

This morning I checked the links.  One has been removed and both pages now point to a single outside link:

So now at least there is a working link to a some garden bonfire content under nuisance.  Thank you Peterborough City Council pollution and IT teams!

What the council’s website now points to is content on a charity website.  The charity has published this leaflet, with the same content.   What do you think?  Is this robust enough?

Should the council have its bonfire policy?  The leaflet suggests that there isn’t much point.  If you want a good, informative source of information on bonfires this response to a FOI request takes a bit of beating.  But the messages in that document don’t seem to me to get enough of an airing, nor do they seem to be falling on the waste burners’ ears.

Which could be partly why we have so many filthy fires burning in my area.

Note 1: In December 2010 the council had three, presumably fully qualified officers:

My bank holiday & a filthy fire

Bank Holiday fire

My intention this bank holiday was to continue to tidy up after the madness of all that election activity and maybe to venture out into the garden if the rain held off.  This morning was beautiful, but much to my disappointment what should have been a day of leisure at home was spoiled by a fire which burned for several hours in a neighbour’s garden.  I think it is out now, but as I write this I have a sore throat.

A while ago I tried to stop the persistent burning of commercial and trade waste in another neighbour’s garden.  It took a ridiculous number of phone calls and I learned on that occasion that, outside working hours, phoning the council just doesn’t work.

I like garden bonfires and a good meal and a good party can be had around a fire.    But fires which burn building waste, fabrics, floor coverings, electrical equipment or furniture are all out of order: they are illegal and a statutory nuisance.  They are illegal because they cause uncontrolled and potentially lethal air pollution, which has been illegal since the 1950s.  These sorts of fires stink, give you a sore throat and give off a tell tale thick black smoke.  The toxicity of fires burning plastics and random combinations of synthetic materials is extreme but it seems that many people have no idea how dangerous they are.  Near my house two somebodies burned two noxious fires last night (I passed tell tale patches of smoke when I went out for a walk) and with another fire lit today not only are people suffering uneccessary exposure to pollutants, but escaping from the fumes just isn’t possible.  Closing windows does not stop smoke or invisible fumes penetrating buildings.

Fire nuisances are one of the biggest problems Peterborough residents have to put up with.  They are very nasty to live with and they have an impact on peoples’ health.  The city’s air monitors are not always in the right places to pick up these back garden events in residential areas, monitoring apparently being focussed on vehicle emissions by the sides of the busiest roads.  And people can’t always pick up the awful smells: as if they had completely lost their sense of smell.

I haven’t lost mine and I rang 999.  The fire service attended immediately and checked that somebody was looking after the fire and left.  The fire continued to burn.  When I rang Dogsthorpe fire station later to find out what had happened I was told that ringing 999 had not been my best course of action.  I had a quick chat explaining exactly how useful I found it going through the correct channels and followed this up with the following email to the fire service.

“You yourself tried and couldn’t get through to the Environmental Health Officer today –  bank holiday.  But I think this applies to anybody needing help outside office hours.

These fires are usually lit outside working hours and often in the dark: so to solve the problem the council would have to provide a well signposted out of hours service.

If you look on its website  this is the council’s page about air pollution:  and if you click “bonfires” at point 6 you get this a page not found

this is the council’s page about nuisances: .  From there if you scroll down to “useful links” and find click “garden bonfire leaflet” (which should take you to an external link) you get this page not found:

I look forward to hearing your views and whether or not anything can be done to improve this crazy situation.”

SCREENSHOTS council fire pages 404s

Meanshile the fireman I had chatted to revisited the fire, because although he hadn’t seen anything nasty in the fire, he had noticed things close to the fire which worried him.  When he went back he found carpet and a mattress burning and this decided him to put the fire out.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to report this incident to the council by phone today, which is a bank holiday, but I had a go anyway.  Peterborough council’s direct line is 01733 747474.  This number advises an emergency number, which is 01733 864157.  When I tried this number I was told that the Environmental Health Officer does not work out of hours and all I could do was leave a message, just asking for a phone call, which I did.

Tomorrow I will have to spend yet more time to report this to the Environmental Health Officer at the council.  I think there should be somone on call to deal with environmental health issues 24 hours a day.  And I think one phone call should be enough.  What do you think?

Meanwhile thank you to Blue Watch at Dogsthorpe Fire Station for helping today!