From 1st October 2019, damage to heritage assets will, for the first time, be a factor courts must take into account when sentencing those convicted of certain arson and criminal damage offences. Following a recent consultation, the UK Sentencing Council published new guidelines on 3rd July, intended to enable courts take full account of the harm caused by these offences, over and above the direct physical and financial loss. The guidelines recognise that the damage wrought by arson and criminal damage on historic buildings or cultural property such as statues, monuments or works of art can be devastating. They also require courts to consider the economic or social impact of damaging public amenities and services and the effect on communities when an area’s emergency services or resources are diverted to deal with an incident of criminal activity.
As Mark Harrison, Head of Heritage Crime Strategy for Historic England, commented: “England’s heritage can’t be valued purely in economic terms. The impact of criminal damage and arson to our historic buildings and archaeological sites has far-reaching consequences…graffiti painted on the walls of a historic church, vandalism to the stonework of an ancient castle or…a fire that devastates a Medieval barn or Victorian pier; these offences have a detrimental impact on both the historic property or site and the local community in which it is located.”
The new guidelines will complement similar guidance provided to the courts in respect of certain theft offences which came into force in February 2016. The theft guidelines have already had an impact on sentencing and it is to be hoped that this will be mirrored in respect of arson and criminal damage once the new guidelines come into force later this year. This new development is another example of the growing recognition by the courts of the importance of protecting cultural property. As the guidelines acknowledge, damage to heritage assets encompasses far more than financial and material loss; it risks depriving this generation and those to come of the shared culture, history and experience which provides meaning and context to our lives and communities.