Man sentenced for deliberately setting fire to building

The fire at Whittle Colliery. Picture by Jane Coltman
The fire at Whittle Colliery. Picture by Jane Coltman

A man who deliberately set fire to a building on his land to avoid demolition costs has been ordered to pay more than £24,000 and given a suspended prison sentence.

Nigel Weston Smith, 63, owner of Whittle Colliery, near Shilbottle, was sentenced for waste offences at Newcastle Crown Court yesterday.

The gutted building after the fire.

The gutted building after the fire.

The court heard that Smith constructed a two-storey building at the colliery without planning permission and was ordered by Northumberland County Council (NCC) to demolish it.

After receiving a fine of £3,000 and a further NCC enforcement notice to remove the building, Smith decided to burn it, rather than pay for demolition.

The flames took fire crews four hours to extinguish and caused two motorists on the nearby A1 to crash.

In March 2014, Smith offered the site as a training venue to Northumberland Fire & Rescue Service (NFRS), suggesting the building could be set on fire. When NFRS rejected the offer on safety grounds, he decided to burn it illegally.

Fire crews tackling the blaze.

Fire crews tackling the blaze.

On March 5 of that year, he advised NFRS that he was demolishing a large cabin and would burn timber and waste in small amounts. NFRS received three separate reports from members of the public concerned about the fire.

Smith called NFRS again on March 20, saying he intended to burn wood and timber from parts of a building. He stated he lived on site, had adequate water supply and he would not burn if the wind was blowing in the direction of the A1.

That evening, two motorists driving northbound on the A1 were distracted by flames and smoke from a large fire. Both were injured in a collision as the first slowed to call 999 and the second collided into the back of the first.

Smith, who had fled the scene, was described by judge Robert Spragg as ‘breathtakingly arrogant’ by ignoring repeated requests from planning officers to remove the building.

He added that Smith only escaped an outright judicial sentence by a narrow margin.

In mitigation, Smith stated that the remains of the building had now been removed at his own cost and that he regrets his actions.

Rachael Caldwell, from the Environment Agency, said: “Smith showed disregard for environmental laws because he wanted to cut corners and save himself the cost of demolishing a building legally – a building that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It is fortunate that no one was killed by his recklessness.”

He was sentenced to 10 months in prison, suspended for 18 months, fined £14,000 and ordered to pay £10,745.45 costs.