According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there has been a decrease in police-recorded metal thefts around England and Wales, with fewer than 13,000 cases reported in 2016/2017. This is down from almost 62,000 per year in 2012/2013. At its peak, metal theft was estimated to cost the economy over £220 million per year, which lead to the introduction of strict licensing requirements for scrap metal dealers.

The rates of metal theft offences were reportedly higher in the northern regions of the UK. The ONS figures show that the North East had the highest rates of metal theft offences, reaching 7 offences per 10,000 of the population.

The decline in reported cases, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the issue of metal theft is being resolved. The figures simply show the number of thefts being recorded, rather than the severity of them. Critics have warned that while there has been a decline in low-value scrap metal thefts, large-scale operations are on the rise.

Organised gangs are turning to metal theft in older buildings

Brazen criminals are targeting older buildings to strip off the metals, and in some cases, entire roofs are being lifted at night. According to specialist church insurer, Ecclesiastical, thieves are targeting churches in organised crime schemes. Last year, a church in Milton, Oxfordshire was targeted, with criminals taking sheets of lead from the roof on five separate occasions. The church has since replaced the roof with stainless steel.

Historic buildings are targeted more due to the appearance of traditional metals, such as lead. A rise in the price of metals, such as copper and lead, could lead to an increase in metal thefts, as criminals sell the scrap pieces on for profit. In October last year, the base metal prices on the London Metal Exchange showed an increase in value, which could make them more likely to be stolen.

It’s becoming crucial to protect historic and heritage buildings

Thanks to the rising value of base metals, it’s become crucial to protect historic and heritage buildings. As Historic England explain, this is to save them from costly repairs, or even from being written off. Vacant buildings are even more at risk, as gang members can break in and cause significant damage by targeting metals inside. As mentioned in Oaksure’s guide to preventing metal theft, removed piping can cause flooding, while walls and ceilings can be destroyed entirely when cables are forcibly removed.

Historic building owners are encouraged to take routine checks of all areas, so any potential thefts are detected quickly. Access to the tops of buildings should also be made as difficult as possible, for example by removing water butts and bins, and ensuring any ladders are stored securely. Having a building guarded at all times can also help prevent opportunistic thieves from targeting the site.

Forensic technology could be the future of protecting buildings

In a bid to keep historical buildings protected, some owners are looking to the latest technology. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has turned to SmartWater to reduce the risk of theft from Shakespeare heritage sites in Stratford-upon-Avon. The forensic technology has already been used to mark the five Shakespeare family homes, as well as other heritage properties that are cared for by the Trust. The initiative comes after lead piping was stolen from Hall’s Croft—the Jacobean manor which was home to Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband Dr John Hall.

SmartWater is used to mark valuable items, and can be traced by police to prove the source of any stolen goods, which can be used to prosecute thieves. Speaking about the use of the water, Phil Cleary, co-founder and director of the SmartWater Foundation, explained how they are looking to protect the world’s cultural heritage sites with the forensic technology. The Foundation is also working in partnership with the War Memorial Trust to protect the 100,000 war memorials around the UK, free of charge. This is due to the rise in memorials being stolen to be sold for scrap metal.

As the value of metal increases, the number of metal thefts is also likely to rise, with organised gangs targeting bigger buildings. Historical buildings are more likely to be targeted, as criminals look to strip them of the valuable base metals. Protecting these buildings has become more crucial than ever, for both historical and cultural reasons.