Sadly and increasingly frequently, stories come in reporting the damage to, or total loss of cultural heritage sites. Many will remember the loss of a Peruvian pyramid in June/July 2013, a tragic developer led destruction of an archaeological site. What awaits to be seen in Peru is what punishment will be meted out to those responsible, following criminal charges being brought against the perpetrators. Another week goes by, and now another story of destruction reaches us, this time from Australia. Again, development led work, mining in this instance, has seen a sacred Aboriginal site at Bootu Creek damaged and severely undermined.
What is interesting in the case of Bootu Creek is that this is the first instance of a company (in Australia) being prosecuted for such a culture-heritage crime. In one regard we might be inclined to celebrate, embracing the fact that the perpetrators of damage to a heritage site have finally been made to pay. But have they? A fine totalling the equivalent of £88,000 somehow seems inadequate for the desecration and partial destruction of a heritage site. The inadequacies of the fine are put into much sharper contrast when considering that the company fined, OM Manganese, as part of OM Holdings, contributed to pre tax profits of $8 million in 2013. Will OM Holdings really care about the loss of $150,000, when the costs can be offset by far more substantial financial profits? Will this fine act as a discouragement, or instead is this case study one which suggests that if companies are caught damaging heritage sites, that the financial implications offer no real disincentive to pursue such activities?
In a Welsh context, this is a potentially pressing matter. Having been involved in the consultation process on the proposed Heritage Bill for Wales, the issue of enhanced protection of historic sites came up on a number of occasions, and it is heartening in some respects to see the issue of fines being discussed in the consultation document. Cited as a negative within current historic environment protection policy is the current weakness of fines imposed on developers for damaging historic buildings and sites. Point 35 of the document specifically stresses that an element of the consultation will fall on the exploration of ways in which fines might be put to more effective use to deter unauthorised works in the historic environment. As with the Australian example, we should be encouraged that this issue is being addressed by the Welsh Government. Yet the consultation process allows us to make recommendations as to the nature and severity of fines imposed on ignorant and unscrupulous developers. Token fines will deter nothing. Yet we cannot say with conviction that severe fines will do anything else. However we are simply yet to see the impacts of severe fines used in Wales, and there is a very real opportunity to put in place the deterrents that might better safeguard our historic landscapes. This is opportunity we would do well not to miss.
Consultation on the Heritage Bill is open now and will remain so through to the 11th of October. If you feel that the historic environment in Wales is worth protecting, get involved.