The chief executive of the council, on whose land a bonfire builder fell to his death, was warned of the danger of falls from huge bonfires in the area just days before the tragedy.
he Belfast Telegraph has seen extensive correspondence from a former police officer who has repeatedly asked Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to step in to improve bonfire safety on his property.
On Saturday night, John Steele died when he fell from high up on the Antiville bonfire in Larne. The father of two was in his thirties. On Monday, the council – which has been divided by fighting and dysfunctionality lately – announced it was investigating the tragedy.
Last Tuesday – just four days before Mr Steele’s death – the former police officer wrote to Valerie Watts, the interim chief executive of the council. He drew her attention to video of the huge bonfire at nearby Craigyhill, saying it showed “not only the very real danger of falling from heights without fall protection, but also the extremely obvious risk of pallets trying to get over them, to drop from on high to the top of the structure”.
The former official, whose identity is known to us but who has asked not to be identified publicly, referred to DUP Council member Angela Smyth’s comment in that paper that there are now fewer complaints about the size and safety of bonfires. The person said neither Ms Smyth nor the council “have addressed the critical issue of fall protection and risk assessment”.
The previous day he had written to Ms Watts’ secretary asking her to draw attention to the fact that “bonfire builders are allowed to work on the bonfire being set up on MEA Council land [at] Heights that cannot be conquered, falling off the campfire while climbing up or down”.
The CEO’s secretary told him that Ms Watts had been made aware of his concerns and “a response will be given in due course”.
This message was part of a longstanding correspondence with the Council since last year. After believing his concerns were being ignored, the man – who said his motivation was solely to save lives and not politics – filed a formal complaint against the council.
Citing several environmental and safety laws he claimed are being broken, he said there was an obligation to notify council insurance providers of campfires taking place on his land.
He found through freedom of information requests that the council had not conducted a comprehensive risk assessment of campfires on his land.
He also noted that the council required insurance certificates and risk assessments from other groups using his land, even for events with far less obvious risks, but did not require it for campfires.
Asking if this was in line with his obligations under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, he asked: ‘Why do some people have to follow these rules when applying for a permit and campfire builders don’t? I had asked the question previously as I cannot see how persons and bystanders building or witnessing the burning of bonfires such as those seen at Craigyhill would be covered by insurance should they be injured or killed as a result of the obvious inherent risks should be demonstrated.
“If the insurance provider was not made aware of the full risks – and I can’t see how the insurance provider could be made aware of these facts without a full risk assessment – I ask, would they indemnify any claim?”
In March, acting chief executive Nicola Rowles wrote to him that the council “believes a provincial-wide strategy for managing bonfires is needed” and had raised this with the interim chief of civil service.
In a forceful reply, he stated: “No one, least of all myself, could not sympathize with the level of difficulty the Council is facing. The fact remains, however, that as a landowner, the money stops with the council and no forums, interagency groups or commissions change anything.
“Surely any sane person would agree that ascending and descending to heights of up to 140 feet while building a campfire from pallets that are inherently unstable is a potential disaster that awaits.
“I have personally had to testify before a Coroner’s Court, along with evidence in criminal proceedings etc. at all levels of the judicial hierarchy, from Magistrates Courts, County Courts, Crown Courts and the High Court. I can assure you that a visit to the Coroner’s Court is one of the harrowing experience imaginable.”
The man also raised concerns with the Fire Service, Health and Safety Agency, the Environment Agency of Northern Ireland (NIEA), the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the Department for Communities.
The fire department told him that “ultimate responsibility rests with the owner of the property on which the bonfire will be built.”
In December, a senior official in the department of Sinn Fein Community Minister Deirdre Hargey wrote to him that “while Minister Hargey is responsible for local government, her department’s remit does not include campfire regulation” and that “there are very few steps in powers for departments to intervene in the affairs or functions of councils”.
In April he met with DAERA Permanent Secretary Anthony Harbinson and NIEA Executive Director Paul Donnelly. The former police officer said he was told they believed prosecution under current waste laws was not appropriate, although he believed there was “clear evidence that the law is being broken”.
He said: “No authority wants to touch the subject. A man died that shouldn’t have happened. I begged Mid and East Antrim Council to act last year and was ignored.”
When asked what Ms Watts had done about the issue and whether the council would continue to allow bonfires of unregulated sizes to be built, the council said it “receives concerns from members of the public about bonfires and works regularly with the community.” and stakeholders, including through the Council Working Group on Cultural Celebrations”.
“Questions or concerns about bonfires are addressed by the relevant departments and senior management within the Council and often in collaboration with legal partners and/or through the Council’s Cultural Celebrations Working Group. While building and lighting campfires are not community administered events, we continue to work closely with the community and offer any support we can.”
https://www.independent.ie/news/just-days-before-john-steeles-death-council-was-repeatedly-warned-about-bonfire-fall-risk-41832634.html Just days before John Steele’s death, the council was repeatedly warned of the risk of a campfire fall