Bonfire of our sanity

Safety regulations have taken the sparkle out of fireworks night.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Bonfire night in Sussex, England was traditionally an edgy affair. The fearsome Bonfire Boys took to the streets, burning the effigies of the hated public figures of the moment. Special police were drafted in to rein in the revelry.

Sussex bonfires still put on a good show, with their costumed bonfire societies and torched processions. But the obsession with safety has left the celebrations lukewarm.

The entrance to the bonfire in the Sussex village of Firle the other week looked like the scene of a road accident. Police cars, flashing lights and protective tape everywhere. As we made our way down the dark, narrow lane to the village, the tannoy’s announcements did something to dampen the mood. We could follow the procession if we wanted, but only if we stayed behind the line of monitors and did exactly what they told us. When the procession passed, police guided you to designated spots. The spectacular bonfire later remained roped off behind a barrier.

Bonfires and firework parties have been rained on across the land. New government legislation rules that fireworks can only be sold in the run-up to Bonfire night, New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year, and Diwali; it is an offence to let off fireworks between 11pm and 7am (except on these four nights of the year, when they can be let off to either 12pm or 1am); lighting fireworks in any street or public place is banned; and you must be over-18 to buy most fireworks or possess them in public (1).

Insurance premiums have soared, and bonfire parties are required to fulfil a whole raft of safety requirements. According to Albert Kemp, executive chairman of the insurance company Insurex Expo-sure, two years ago local bonfires would get coverage for between £30 and £60 – if they bothered at all. ‘In 2002, there were 50 insurers who would cover bonfires in the UK. Now there is really only us.’ Councils have become more circumspect, often asking for £5million cover for events held on their land. For a bonfire of 1000 people, this adds up to premiums of a wacking £1365. ‘In the past, councils would have just let people get on with it’, says Kemp.

Insurex Expo-sure asks all its clients to comply with Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) safety guidelines. As the DTI says, this involves ‘a lot of work’. You need to measure out a 100-metre by 50-metre ‘dropping zone’ for spent fireworks; alcohol is off the menu because it will ‘make crowd control more difficult’; only trained people can let off the fireworks; and spectators are banned from bringing their own fireworks, even sparklers (2).

The official message is that it might be better not to bother. The firework safety website asks: ‘Do you really need a bonfire? It is much better to manage without one. But if you insist make sure it is well away from your house and any trees, hedges, fences or sheds.’ Another parenting website warns: ‘if you’re determined to have a firework party at home, or to attend one in a friend’s back garden, make absolutely sure you follow the Fireworks Code. Your children’s lives could depend on it.’

Big bonfire celebrations have survived, employing a battalion of safety officers and getting insured to the teeth. But local community displays are being snuffed out. Chris Pearce, chairman of the British Pyrotechnists Association, and managing director of Jubilee Fireworks, says that he has noticed a 30 per cent decline in small community displays over the past three years. ‘There has been a decrease in celebrations at pubs, scout associations, hotels and schools. They have come under pressure to fulfil safety requirements – such as safety distances – which often means that the event is unviable.’

One bonfire built by firefighters in Warwickshire next to their fire station was cancelled this year, because the fire station was closed in the evening and so couldn’t ensure that the bonfire wasn’t tampered with (3). Anthony Harris, head of Pat Collins Funfairs, had to call off his planned bonfire party and funfair in Stafford – and said that he knew of 10 other parties in the area that had done the same. ‘It’s been a nightmare. The regulations are horrendous’, he says. ‘Health and safety regulations, fire regulations. Before we did a DIY job with the bonfire.’

A similar thing happened to an old people’s home, Corton House in Norwich. Corton House’s David Everitt said that they had been running it for 20 years – ‘it’s an important event in the life of the home’. Corton House hadn’t really thought too much about insurance in the past. Once it did, the insurance company wanted £552 pounds and a full risk analysis. ‘We had to provide a plan of where the fireworks were held, where they were going to be let off, the provisions for hoses and fire extinguishers, and we needed somebody who was pyrotechnically trained to let off the fireworks’, says Everitt. Thankfully the home was rescued by a donation from a member of the public, but others aren’t so lucky.

Those community bonfires that survive draft in special wardens and firework lighters. Terry Pearce from Jubilee Fireworks said that the company was in demand to run local bonfires: ‘We’re being asked to do fireworks for people who before would have done their own. At a school, for example, a schoolteacher would have done the fireworks.’ Alternatively, people are deserting public displays for private parties in their back gardens – indicated by an increase in over-the-counter sales of fireworks, and a rise in injuries at home.

According to insurance companies, blame-and-claim culture is at fault. Albert Kemp says that rising claims buried low-cost insurance deals, and forced companies to tighten their stipulations. Certainly, there seems to be some not-very-public-spirited attempts to get cash back for fairly minor injuries. According to Kemp, 70 per cent of the claims are for ‘slippage and tripage’ – women going in their ‘high heels’, for example, and falling over in the mud. The other 30 per cent of claims are for people being knocked over in the rush, and then a few ‘burnt fingers and heads’, or cases of ‘shell shock’ when a firework explodes too close. A broken leg could get you £5000, a burn or scratch that became infected could get you £1000.

But there were only 1136 bonfire-related injuries last year, out of a population of 60 million, so there can’t be that many claims (4). Official regulations seem to pre-empt claims before they happen – and even when they don’t happen. And government safety warnings could themselves give rise to claims. The emphasis on ensuring that bonfire parties are ‘100 per cent safe’ encourages people to be less forgiving of accidents.

Community bonfires used to be one of the few occasions for local people to get together. In my small village in Nottinghamshire, the bonfire was the only time that I would see many of my neighbours. There was no barrier around the fire, my small brother spent all evening waving sparklers, and my non-pyrotechnically trained dad set off fireworks. Behaviour that was completely normal only a few years ago is now ancient history.

Public occasions today are viewed as a safety liability. The official idea seems to be that if people come together spontaneously, anything could happen. The public – like the fireworks – could just explode. Hence the government’s particular concern about people setting off fireworks in the street, with police now giving out fixed penalty notices to anyone caught redhanded. ‘We’re tackling the antisocial use of fireworks’, a spokesperson for the DTI tells me. ‘We’re encouraging people to do it in a safe environment.’ Here ‘antisocial’ is code for spontaneous, and ‘safe’ is code for policed.

The authorities have always had a problem with bonfire night. Back in the nineteenth century, the Sussex establishment tried to contain the riotous activities of the Bonfire Boys by setting up special bonfire societies, transforming exuberant festivities into regimented marches that often involved visits to establishment landmarks such as the local war memorial. Safety may be just the latest code for reining people in, but it’s a peculiarly vacuous one. It’s just about watching where you put your feet, with yellow-jacketed monitors telling you where to stand and what to do.

There’s a spot of rebelliousness left in us yet. By the end of the Firle bonfire, the attendants had slackened their security lines and people were wandering in and out of the procession. The two men pulling fire carts were knocking back the lagers, and weaving increasingly wavy lines. And whether the government likes it or not, my part of London still reverberates to the sound of young people setting off explosions on street corners.

(1) New legislation, on the DTI website

(2) ‘Fireworks: a guide for organisers of public displays’, DTI

(3) Bonfire scrapped over safety fear, 25 October 2004


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Topics Politics


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