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Why Metal Theft is Good Business (but not for you…)

Posted on: 14/07/2011
Metal Theft Sign

New Forest District Council

At a recent Capacity Building Seminar in Birmingham, Dr David Knight, Senior Conservation Officer at the Church Buildings Council presented a report on metal theft from churches – you can access his presentation here. The issue is a very live one, and David’s talk highlighted aspects that are both worrying and interesting in equal measure.

The problem of metal theft from buildings is a growing one due to the increase of raw commodity prices over the last decade or so, principally from economic growth in China – and this problem does not only affect churches. As well as rising demand there is very limited supply, which will mean that we will run out of lead within perhaps two generations. And many sorts of buildings are affected, not just churches – in general, however, it is historic buildings that are the principal victims of this crime.

A Tale of Two Strategies

So what can we do to address this problem? The first strategy  is to make theft more difficult – this can be done in a number of ways, all of which are helpful:

  • Regulation of scrapyards: The aim of this is to remove easy access to cash. The proposal is for the government to introduce mandatory licensing for dealing in scrap lead, requiring the recording of registration details of each vehicle entering the yard, and making anonymous sale illegal. The Church Buildings Council has held meetings with the Home Office and has submitted a report which is being actively considered.
  • Alarms – there are various systems, using sound and/or light which have proved a useful deterrent – systems need to require multiple activation, to avoid being set off by a falling leaf.
  • Metal Theft from church roof

    Metal Theft from Church Roof | New Forest District Council

    Watermarking – Painting at least a fraction of each metal surface with ‘Smartwater’ provides a forensic marker on the lead which will allow any lead stolen from your building to be traced back. There have been successful prosecutions of thieves by this method; however, this will only stop a theft if you advertise the fact that your material is protected in this way, and if the thieves understand this and believe you.

Ecclesiastical Insurance has a web page dedicated to Metal Theft, with an excellent report in pdf form.

Harvest time

We must confront the fact that for those that do the thieving, the metal is there for the taking – they are in effect harvesting what they see as a free resource. Replacing that resource like for like without at the very least increasing security along the lines above will simply result in repeated return visits. In his talk David also presented the following graph (from Ecclesiastical Insurance), which shows the trading price of metals against the level of insurance claims over a period of 4 years. What the graph shows is that metal theft is a planned crime.

Graph Comparing the Trading Price of Metals with the Level of Insurance Claims

Graph Comparing the Trading Price of Metals with the Level of Insurance Claims | Ecclesiastical

The implications of this are huge. As far as the thieves are concerned this is a business. As commodity prices increase further, as they inevitably will because of limited supply, then it will pay the thieves to become smarter, which means that security strategies on their own will never be the full answer. If we care for our historic buildings, we therefore cannot rely on security measures alone. We must fight business with business – we must understand the commercial dynamic and respond in kind. I firmly believe that in this case that means reducing demand by specifying alternative materials, of which there are various possibilities, including:

  • single ply membrane (Sarnafil, Alwitra etc); this is  a good material, available in a wide range of colours, but while you can simulate lead roll detailing it will never look the same – in my view this is therefore best used for roofs behind parapets, or for parapet gutters;
  • Terne coated stainless steel – the surface of the material appears very much like lead (or copper), but the detailing is sharper and more modern looking;
  • Ubliflex – a non lead flashing material which can be used in all applications where lead is traditionally installed, such as valley gutters, cover flashings, step flashings etc.
Clearly not every historic building is suitable to receive these alternative materials – the choice of materials should follow an understanding of their significance. There is no doubt, however, that previous generations up to and including the Victorians would have taken a pragmatic view of this, and would specify the material that would be best for the building in the long term.
If we are to address the significant problem of metal theft from historic buildings then we need to do so from all angles, including taking the heat out of the market by reducing the demand for the ‘product’; until we do so, we leave our historic buildings exposed to increasing abuse.
Please let me know your thoughts on this issue.