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Rooftop Metal Theft On the Rise


Churches and heritage buildings have been warned to be extra vigilant regarding metal theft from their rooftops. While the number of metal theft crimes declined during the pandemic, fears of an increase during the summer months are escalating. Read on to learn more and find some useful guidance on how to prevent metal theft.

Gloucester-based heritage building insurer Ecclesiastical Insurance has issued a warning that all churches and heritage buildings need to be ready for an increase in metal theft crimes. Higher metal prices mean there’s an increased demand for copper and lead and as COVID related restrictions are eased It`s feared there will be a surge in metal theft.

In the first quarter of 2022 several churches have already been seriously affected. A Grade II listed church in the New Forest recently lost around one third of the copper on It`s roof, resulting in further, significant damage to the roof. And last year in Dorset, a gang was successfully prosecuted for a spate of metal thefts across the county and beyond, causing over £2million in damage.

Increase in Metal Theft Crime

Metal theft crime peaked in 2011 with around 15,000 tons of metal being stolen. Around 50% of this valuable metal was taken from railways, statues and church rooftops. In 2013 the police recorded 62,075 metal theft incidents of which around 32,000 were infrastructure related. The Scrap Metal Dealers act was introduced that year, clamping down on rogue traders and unlawful scrap metal dealers. This legislation resulted in a steady decline in reports of metal theft crime to around 13,000 in 2017.

Infrastructure related metal theft refers to the removal of metal that has a direct impact on the functioning of infrastructure and/or fabric of a building or machinery. Over the period from 2018/19 to 2019/20 there was a recorded increase of around 21%, from 6,884 to 8,313 crime incidents.

It`s important to be aware of significant regional variations in the volume of ‘infrastructure related metal theft’ crimes. While the year-on-year increase in the West Midlands was recorded to be around 20% the increase in the South West over the same time period was a staggering 156%. The East of England recorded around 125% more crimes, in the East Midlands it was around 50% and in the South East infrastructure related metal theft increased by around 41%.

Value of Scrap Metal

Lead has been used as a roofing material for centuries. It`s highly malleable, making it easily moulded to any shape, it`s non-combustible, highly resistant to corrosion and 100% recyclable. In roofing applications it`s commonly used for flashing, valleys, gutters, downspouts and flat roof protection. Lead was first mined in around 6,500 BC and was used extensively by the Romans to build their aqueducts between 500 BC and 300 BC. The Normans also used lead in their buildings, for pipework, guttering and roof protection. Many of the ancient churches throughout the UK would not have lasted as long as they have without the protection provided by their lead roofing material.

The current scrap metal price for lead in the UK is around £1100 per tonne and lead has one of the highest worldwide metal recycling rates. Using recycled lead reduces CO2 emissions by 99% compared with traditional processes and in Europe around 74% of lead is derived from recycled sources.

Copper is another valuable metal that’s been used to provide lightweight, long-lasting roof coverings for centuries. Many medieval buildings and churches roofed with copper are still intact today, thanks to the weather-proof protection provided by copper roofing. The scrap metal price for copper varies from around £3000 to as much as £3800 per tonne.

Church Roof Lead Theft

While the costs involved in replacing stolen roofing lead or copper are high the damage caused to churches and heritage buildings when these materials are removed can be astronomical.

Removing lead flashing, for example, allows water to penetrate which can cause immense and often irreparable internal damage to valuable antiquities. But it`s notable that much of the roofing damage is caused by thieves as they perpetrate their crimes. Walking on roofing tiles, for example, can crack or dislodge them. And ripping out lead roofing material can cause significant damage to stone work and leave roof timbers exposed to the elements.

The costs involved in repairing the damage caused as a result of lead theft can be incredibly high. A number of churches in Somerset, targeted by organised metal thieves, are facing costs of around £350,000 for roofing repairs and these exclude the cost of damage caused to church interiors.

A church in Bedfordshire that suffered the loss of around 20 tonnes of roofing lead is facing estimated repair costs of around £400,000. This vastly exceeds their insurance cover which is only likely to provide around £15,000, prompting parishioners to raise funds for the work.

And it`s important to note that the impact of roofing lead theft from churches is often far more than monetary. These criminal attacks often have a devastating impact on communities where their local church is a vital community resource.

Easy Targets for Criminals

There are around 15,000 places of worship listed by Historic England. Many of these are in quiet, rural locations and a substantial number have inadequate security protection. Historic England has cited metal theft as one of the most significant threats faced by listed churches.

And it`s not only listed churches that are at risk. Over 70,000 listed buildings were physically affected by crime in 2020 and for almost 30,000 of these, the impact of the crimes they experienced was substantial.

A tactic used by some organised crime gangs has been to carry out their rooftop attacks on stormy nights when they were less likely to be heard. The attack in October last year, in which 20 tonnes of roofing lead was stolen from Grade I listed All Saints’, Houghton Conquest, in Bedfordshire, reflects how organised criminal gangs who have the capability to remove the lead, transport it and process it for resale are now involved in these crimes.

As noted, historic churches and heritage buildings with valuable rooftop metal work are often located outside busy, urban areas. In these locations they provide thieves with opportunities to commit crimes without being seen or challenged.

How to Deter and Prevent Metal Theft

Historic England provide a comprehensive guide to help prevent the theft of metal from church roofs.

They acknowledge how there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the metal theft challenge and every location should tailor their prevention and security measures appropriately. As for other security related challenges it`s always a good idea to start with a risk assessment.

Here are some practical recommendations to help deal with the threat of metal theft crime.

Consider Alternative Roofing Materials

While it`s generally best to replace roofing materials on a like-for-like basis, especially on listed buildings, opportunities may arise to use alternative materials that are less attractive to criminals. Historic England may approve the use of alternative materials if a building has been previously targeted by criminals and effective security measures to prevent further losses cannot be achieved or the heritage of the building does not warrant like-for-like replacement.

Engage the Local Community

The local community can play an important part in protecting our valuable churches and heritage buildings. Encouraging people to keep a vigilant watch on buildings and report any suspicious activity can be extremely valuable. It`s also important to encourage Community Support Police Officers to keep a watchful eye on historic buildings and the unexpected arrival of workers should always be reported to the police so they can be checked.

Whenever formal works are to be carried out on a building make certain the community and local police officers are informed by posting notices in local magazines or on notice boards.

Carry Out Routine Roofing Checks

Unfortunately, the theft of roofing materials only becomes apparent, in many cases, when rainwater penetrates to the interior. Unfortunately, the cost impact at this stage of damage can be extremetly high. Establishing a routine to regularly check rooftops for theft or damage and find it before it has a huge impact minimises the risk of further expensive damage. Using affordable drone aircraft, equipped with cameras, to perform routine rooftop checks and inspections minimises risks and enable inspections to be carried out frequently.

Restrict Site Access

It`s important to prevent vehicles from gaining access to the site and getting close to the church or heritage building. Gates should always be locked and only opened for permitted vehicles. It`s also a good idea to not leave anything around that can potentially be used to transport stolen materials, such as wheelbarrows or wheelie bins. These should be securely stored in locked locations. But if wheelie bins are left outdoors they should ideally be secured using wheelie bin locks.

Remove All Climbing Aids

While organised criminal gangs might be fully equipped with ladders and what they need to access rooftops many criminals simply take advantage of whatever is at hand. Access to rooftops can be made more difficult by removing or pruning anything that can potentially be used as climbing aids such as: tall trees adjacent to the building, water butts, waste bins and storage sheds.

Store Ladders in a Secure Location

Ladders should never be left outdoors where they can potentially be used by criminals. They should always be securely locked away, out of sight.

Maximise Site Visibility

When carrying out a risk assessment, look for areas where criminals could work without being seen and take steps to improve visibility. Tall trees, hedges and overgrown vegetation can provide miscreants with a screen to hide their nefarious activity so it`s often a good idea to cut this back.

Install Security Lighting

Criminals like to work unseen, in the dark. Installing security lighting that’s triggered by the movement can be enough to deter most criminals. Installing this lighting at roof level, where valuable metalwork exists, can be particularly effective.

Install CCTV

CCTV security systems are becoming increasingly affordable. Ideally, the system should be continuously monitored remotely. But there are simple systems that will, when triggered, send alert messages via SMS.

Install a Rooftop Intruder Alarm

Intruder alarms can be extremely valuable in boosting the security of an historic building. Purpose-designed rooftop security alarms are now readily available. Typically they use a number of sensors configured to recognise the presence of a human body, triggering an alarm and sending an alert message. The alarm sound and flashing light is enough to deter intruders from pursuing their crime.

Implement Anti Climb Protection

Anti climb paint is a highly effective non-setting security paint that prevents would-be climbers from gaining a foot or hand hold. Applying this paint to downpipes and other surfaces that might be used to access rooftops (above a height of 2 metres), along with the presentation of appropriate warning signage, will deter many criminals.

anti climb paint with sign
Anti Climb Paint with Warning Sign

Downpipes and drainpipes can be protected with steel anti-climb downpipe covers. These prevent pipework from being used to scale buildings and protect it from vandalism and accidental damage.

downpipe covers
Downpipe Covers


Security Mark Your Metalwork

Security marking metalwork using Smartwater or DNA security marking is being successfully used to combat metal theft crime. Applying security marking to metal roofing materials and then prominently displaying signage to warn that forensic security marking is in place is enough to deter many criminals.

Don`t Leave it Too Late

The time to act is now. You must carry out at least a basic risk assessment to determine areas of weakness that will help establish improved security measures that will hopefully ensure that your church or listed building isn`t targeted by unscrupulous metalwork thieves.

If you have any questions about what you can do to protect your property or if you have any special requirements remember that we are here to help. Give us a call on 01273 475500 and we’ll provide free, expert advice.

This message was added on Thursday 5th May 2022


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