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Taking the Lead: Protecting Heritage Metal

By Dr Louise Grove, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy, Loughborough University

  • "The theft [of church roof lead] occurred just hours before a funeral service was due to take place, leaving no time for a temporary covering to be put in place." [1]
  • "A six foot tall bronze sculpture of a peacock made by a world renowned artist has been stolen from a country garden in Hampshire, sparking fears that it will be melted down for scrap." [2]
  • "It was only when water started gushing down the walls of the Grade I-listed 15th-century church of St Peter's and St Paul's in the medieval town of Lavenham in Suffolk that anyone realised there was something wrong." [3]

These are just some recent examples of the many devastating effects of heritage metal theft in England. We often lose sight of the wider impact of heritage metal theft: the losses for victims, communities, and future generations.

Listed places of worship are often the target for lead theft - they have relatively large amounts of valuable metal, in often isolated locations. But listed places of worship are not simply heritage assets. They are often a place for congregation - not just for worship but for playgroups, coffee mornings, commiserations and celebrations. In remote areas - particularly with rapidly closing post offices, pubs, and community centres - places of worship remain a focal point for the community. They play an important role in reducing loneliness and isolation across the generations, as well as being an important source of information for genealogists and historians.

When metal is taken from the roof of a place of worship, it is not just the fabric of the building that is damaged, but the fabric of the wider community. When metal is removed from the roof, it reduces the usability of the place of worship - and sometimes prevents it being safely used for months at a time. The impact of this tertiary victimisation must not be underestimated, and we should consider these wider issues when looking at prioritising our (inevitably) limited crime prevention resources.

Colour head and shoulders portrait photo of smiling Louise Grove with shoulder-length brown hair.
Dr Louise Grove, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy, Loughborough University © Louise Grove

We have made important progress in the past few years. The introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act has doubtless made it more difficult (though not impossible) for opportunistic offenders to get rid of stolen metal. Heritage Impact Statements have been introduced into the sentencing process, so that magistrates and judges are assisted with looking beyond the monetary impact of heritage metal theft, and to consider the wider implications when sentencing.

Recent Sentencing Guideline updates have also encouraged the consideration of heritage as an aggravating factor, allowing for the use of harsher sentences in certain circumstances. We have also seen greater involvement from the police - with specialist heritage officers being introduced in forces across England and Wales, and Leicestershire Police's recent introduction of heritage crime prevention volunteers.

Lead gutter and roof damaged after attack by thieves.
Metal thieves attack lead on church roof © Historic England

But there is much still left to do. We don't know the effectiveness of the measures introduced to tackle heritage metal theft. Too often we rely on the requirements of insurers, or the marketing of for-profit companies to make our decisions about preventive practice. We still have no way of routinely monitoring the nature and extent of heritage offences - and without this baseline data, we struggle to understand whether measures work and how cost-effective they are.

We know that people who commit 'big' crimes also commit 'little' crimes [4] - we don't yet have the data to understand this in the heritage context, but we can take an educated guess that offenders involved in moving heritage metal across borders may also be involved in illegally moving other items across borders - perhaps heritage artefacts but equally drugs, cars, people or weapons.

This means that we need to be much more active in gathering intelligence across multiple crime types to inform our approach to heritage metal theft - and likewise, targeting heritage metal theft may in turn give us greater intelligence about other criminality.

It's widely acknowledged that heritage has many benefits - it's linked with improved health outcomes, a sense of community, and nurturing a knowledge and understanding of our past. At a time when so much in our communities is under threat, it is vital that we give ourselves the opportunity to address at least this one item on the agenda: protecting our shared spaces from heritage metal theft.

References

[1] Lead thefts from Norfolk churches

[2] Hunt after £45,000 statue theft

[3] Suffolk churches count ‘devastating’ cost of lead roof thefts

[4] Roach, J., 2007. Those who do big bad things also usually do little bad things: Identifying active serious offenders using offender self-selection. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 9(1), pp.66-79

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