It was heartening to read the report by Cahal Milmo in the i newspaper last week about the first application of the new Sentencing Guidelines for theft offences. The guidelines urge courts to take into account the special nature of heritage assets when sentencing offenders for theft crimes, giving official recognition to the devastating harm which can result from damage to cultural property. We’ve discussed the guidelines in a previous post and shared our hopes that they will quickly start to make a difference to the sentences courts impose for heritage offences.
The first case did not disappoint. Marian Nitu pleaded guilty to a charge of stealing lead worth £40,000 from two church rooves in rural Norfolk late last year. He was sentenced by Norwich Crown Court at the end of March to two years eight months in prison – a hefty sentence, especially given his guilty plea. Recorder Douglas Herbert recognised the “significant emotional harm” the offences had caused, not only to the church and its parishioners but also to “those in local communities who value these ancient buildings”.
Signs are beginning to emerge that heritage crime is creeping up the agenda on many levels, albeit baby-step by baby-step.
Certainly, even with our glass half full and donning our rose-tinted spectacles, we’re not holding our breath for major change at the national or legislative level. We are, though, genuinely hopeful that real progress is afoot.
At the community level, there’s evidence that increasing numbers of local groups are forming to tackle heritage crime – and it was telling that two Norfolk newspapers offered a £26,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the lead thieves responsible for stripping the neighbourhood’s church rooves. From the support of local champions to the application of the new guidelines, to the work of the Cultural Heritage APPG we reported on yesterday, it looks like the various strands are starting to come together. This is thanks in no small part to the longstanding efforts of Historic England and the ARCH partnership (Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage).
It may be some time before we see the national heritage protection unit proposed as a priority by a number of attendees of this week’s APPG, but in the meantime, at least the direction of travel is a positive one.