Specialist insurer Ecclesiastical is encouraging churches to protect their premises following a spate of lead thefts, which caused over £2million in damage to remote countryside churches.
At Lincoln Crown Court on Wednesday (6 January) four men were sentenced to a total of over 19 years in prison following a crime spree which affected more than 20 churches across the country – including Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Wiltshire and Yorkshire. The thefts, which took place over a two year period between 2018 and 2020 affected centuries old and Grade I-listed buildings and were carried out by an organised crime gang intent on stealing lead from the roofs of churches.
The gang, all originally from Romania, had their photos published in The Lincolnite, and some small regional news websites, but most mainstream media news outlets chose not to use the Police mugshots, or mention their country of origin. Other members of the gang are reportedly still being sought by the Police, so more thefts from church roofs may well occur later in 2021.
With 130 years of experience insuring churches and the people who work with and care for them, Ecclesiastical Insurance provides cover for many of the churches affected and supported them with their claims. The Gloucester-based insurer’s risk management team is urging churches to protect their properties from theft by taking steps to avoid becoming a victim.
Measures including installing security lights, CCTV, roof alarms and marking metal with a forensic security marking systems such as Smartwater have all been proven to help reduce the threat of crime, with the latter proving vital in supporting Lincolnshire Constabulary’s prosecution of the gang. The gang were also traced easily because they used hire vans with trackers fitted and received payments for the lead from a metal recycling centre, paid directly into their bank accounts. What is surprising is that it took 20 theft incidents before someone managed to trace a reg plate to a hire company, and then join the dots.
Jo Whyman, risk management director at Ecclesiastical, said: “We’re pleased that this prosecution has been successful and hope it serves as a deterrent to would be criminals. This is a timely reminder that the theft of metal is an ongoing issue and the knock on effects can be huge.
“There is a risk that the continuing economic downturn in the UK could see an increase in theft of metal from buildings such as churches, which is why it is vital that they take steps to protect their premises from unscrupulous offenders.”
To help tackle the ongoing threat of metal theft, Ecclesiastical is one of a number of partners involved in OPAL, the National Intelligence Unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime based with West Mercia Police – including Historic England.
SHOULD LEAD BE REPLACED WITH GREY PAINTED STEEL, GIVEN THAT MOST VISITORS CAN’T SEE THE ROOFTOP?
Removing temptation is arguably better than playing cat and mouse with East European gangs. One alternative strategy that IE spotted for churches is to replace stolen lead sections with coated steel, which has a low scrap metal value. One church recently received planning permission to carry out that work in Lincolnshire.
Of course most churches already use lead, so a rolling replacement programme would be too expensive and many would object to listed buildings having modern roof sections fitted, even though only pigeons and drone pilots can see them. Mark Harrison, head of heritage crime strategy at Historic England, said: “At Historic England we are working with partners to assess the scale of the metal theft problem across the country and develop a coordinated national approach to protect those churches at the highest risk of crime. This includes training local police teams and law enforcement agencies to identify stolen heritage metal when on duty, encouraging scrap metal dealers, smelters and salvage yards to contact the authorities when offered suspected stolen materials.”
While the damage to church buildings caused by metal theft often reaches thousands of pounds, the impact on church communities is equally costly.
Jo Whyman, said: “Our sympathies go out to those churches who have been victims of metal theft. It isn’t just the physical damage that takes place when these crimes are committed. Churches aren’t just about bricks and mortar, it’s about the people and the communities they represent.
“In many cases lead is stripped without churches knowing which leads to further issues with water ingress into the exposed roof, causing even more damage than the theft itself and preventing churchgoers from attending which can be devastating.
“By taking steps now, churches can deter would be thieves and help to protect themselves. Our teams are on hand to help, with more resources available through our website.”