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Neighbour jailed for arson attack

Alcoholic with a grudge started fire in assisted housing block

John Garvey

John Garvey

john.garvey@newburynews.co.uk

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Neighbour jailed for arson attack

A MAN with a grudge against society who terrorised an entire community has been jailed for a potentially deadly arson attack.

It was sheer luck, said a judge, that Peter Higgins was unsuccessful in sparking a blaze which could have trapped around 50 residents inside an assisted housing block.

Higgins set out to make his local community’s life a misery and police were regularly called to Speenhamland Court in Newbury as a result of his drinking binges.

But it took the terrifying incident, in which he shoved flaming tissue paper through the letterbox of his long-suffering next door neighbour, 77-year-old Margaret Benger, to win the residents some peace.

Judge Angela Morris told him: “You endangered everyone in that building.

“[Residents] would have had to negotiate past the fire in order to escape.”

Higgins was in the dock at Reading Crown Court on Thursday for sentencing, having admitted committing arson and being reckless as to whether life was endangered on November 14 last year.

The 60-year-old also has numerous previous convictions for offences including several counts of drink-driving, driving while disqualified, causing criminal damage, harassment and breaching restraining orders.

Lee Harris, prosecuting, said fire service investigators said that, had the blaze not self-extinguished because there were no letters or newspapers beneath, it could have rapidly spread to the entire complex.

By sheer chance, Mrs Benger had been out at the time and was horrified when she returned home to find the fire damage inside her home.

She said in a victim impact statement that her entire life had been blighted by Higgins and she was now living in terror.

The court heard that Higgins had also terrorised others in Newbury, threatening a woman with what appeared to be a pistol and warning: “I’ll make you suffer. You’ll be sad when I burn your dog. Wait and worry...”

John Simmons, defending, conceded that pre-sentence reports made “unfortunate” reading and said: “One can only begin to appreciate the distress and anxiety this has caused.

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“All sorts of things could have happened – but, thankfully, they didn’t.”

His said his client was an alcoholic who had an “animus against society as a whole”.

Judge Morris told Higgins: “Speenhamland Court is an assisted housing block for the over 55s.

“Some residents are vulnerable, to a greater or lesser degree, by reason of age or infirmity.

“Shortly after you were provided a flat there by the local authority the police had to come on a number of occasions due to your behaviour.

“There were a number of complaints about you as a result of the residents being upset.

“You caused problems for your neighbours from the start by your alcohol dependency and irrational behaviour. 

“The consequences were that you were at odds with your neighbours, including Mrs Benger.”

She said of the fire that it was “more by luck than judgement” that it had not ripped through the entire building, trapping the residents inside.

Judge Morris added: “You were out of control. The most serious aspect is the level of risk your actions posed to life and property.

“You appear to have little, if any, intention of curbing your drinking... alcohol has consumed you.”

Turning to the dock officer, she said: “Take him down, please.”

Higgins was jailed for 33 months.

In addition, he was ordered to pay a statutory victim services surcharge of £170.

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