CHURCH roofs have long been the cause of headaches for their
PCCs - but, a few years ago, damage to the roofs of some of the
oldest parish churches in the UK became the stuff of national
The price of lead - the traditional metal for church roofs and
flashing, because of its malleability and lifespan - started to
rise, and the idea of climbing a church roof and stealing a bit of
lead became an ever more attractive one for thieves.
Churches, especially those in rural and isolated areas, were
particularly vulnerable. Some thieves came back to churches again
and again, until all the lead was gone; and, in some cases, when
the church repaired the damage and reinstalled the lead, the
thieves came back again to strip the new roof. Some clergy and
churchwardens started sleeping in the church to try to catch the
Insurance claims rocketed, and church insurers considered
excluding metal-theft from their policies.
THE operations manager for the insurers Ecclesiastical, Kevin
Thomas, said that the explosion in lead-thefts started in 2007. In
the late '90s and early 2000s, they had seen as few as ten claims a
year for lead-theft. In 2007, their claims bill came to £8.7
million, from 2200 claims. The next year it was £7.6 million, from
more than 2400 claims.
"With the rise in metal prices in the world market," Mr Thomas
said, "thieves started earning good money from stolen metal.
Isolated rural churches, where thieves could work for several hours
unseen, were particularly vulnerable."
Ecclesiastical, which insures 16,000 parish churches, took a
huge hit. It became obvious that the company could not continue to
pay out at that level, Mr Thomas said. "It very quickly became
clear in 2007 that the rate of losses was unsustainable, and that
lead-theft was effectively almost uninsurable. We wanted to
continue to support customers; so we reduced our payout to £5000
for theft of lead and £5000 for water damage that resulted."
The cap had an effect on their payouts, dropping down to £1.8
million in 2009. The number of claims continued to rise, however,
peaking in 2012. Ecclesiastical says that, as the average claim for
a church targeted by thieves was less than £10,000, most churches
were still able to recover all the costs involved in a lead-theft,
even after it imposed its cap.
The cap also motivated affected churches to look for better ways
to protect their roofs themselves.
ECCLESIASTICAL launched a "Nosy Neighbour" campaign, encouraging
people who lived near churches to keep an eye on what was going on.
It also sent a free SmartWater security marking kit to every church
that was insured with Ecclesiastical, and invested £500,000 in
installing roof-alarm kits in at-risk areas. Churches that use
SmartWater and have a roof security system are able to apply to
increase their metal-theft cover.
MPs also became involved, as the Church lobbied for new
legislation to try to protect roofs.
The result was the banning of cash payments on the sale of scrap
metal, and the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill, which establishes a
national register of scrapyards, and requires the production of
photo identification at the point of sale.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, who
speaks on issues pertaining to the Church of England in the House
of Commons, said that the legislation, which has been introduced in
the past few months, is already making an impact.
"It is reducing the pull factor for people who think that they
can turn up, strip lead, and make quick cash. The Church played a
strong role in lobbying for this to happen. The fall in lead-thefts
last year is also due to the police, who have been taking
determined action. Thames Valley Police has raided some scrapyards,
and there are some significant trials to come," he said.
He warned that churches had to stay on their guard, although he
welcomed the latest figures from Ecclesiastical for 2012, which
show that claims have fallen to a six-year low.
THE emphasis, Mr Thomas said, is now on prevention. "The number of
losses has reduced considerably, although we are still getting
claims, and churches cannot afford to be complacent. We put a lot
of effort into making sure churches are on their guard. But
metal-theft won't go away. There will always be a black market for
Insurers, MPs, and the Church of England have lobbied English
Heritage for more flexibility in allowing different metals that are
less attractive to thieves to be used on church roofs. Their
original guidance insisted on "like for like" replacement after
But now, in cases where churches have been repeatedly targeted
by thieves, the heritage body is prepared to allow alternative
surfaces, such as stainless steel or tiles.
The Head of Places of Worship Advice for English Heritage, Diana
Evans, said: "Lead remains the best thing to use as flashing and on
roofs. It's a good investment, and lasts a long time, and can be
repaired. That's the ideal; but we understand that when it is
stolen repeatedly, the church doesn't want to consider putting more
"Where there is a theft, we would consider alternative
materials, either as a temporary measure or permanent. We are
taking the realistic approach."
The most commonly approved replacement is terne-coated stainless
steel, although it is not as long-lasting as lead.
ALTHOUGH it says that it now takes a more pragmatic approach,
English Heritage has still taken some churches to a consistory
court for removing lead from roofs as a precautionary measure. In
one case, Christ Church, in Fenton, Stoke on Trent, the Chancellor
of the diocese of Lichfield, the Worshipful Stephen Eyre, ruled
that an alternative surface of a synthetic membrane could remain in
place for 25 years. English Heritage had insisted that the
replacement should remain for only ten years, after which time lead
should be put back.
Chancellor Eyre said that Christ Church was in a "far from
affluent" community, and its large roof was particularly vulnerable
to thieves. But Ms Evans said that it was not appropriate for
churches to remove lead "on the assumption that they will get done
some time; so they may as well flog it themselves".
All sides on the issue of metal-theft praise the efforts of
parishioners to keep the churches going, despite repeated attacks.
"It's been a hard nut to crack," Ms Evans said, "but now everyone
is working together to put the pressure on. The police and the
Crown Prosecution Service have learned a lot of lessons. We want to
say to parishioners who are looking after their churches so
valiantly: 'There are things you can do to make sure you are not
easy pickings for thieves."
Mr Thomas, who has been with Ecclesiastical for 28 years, said:
"In that time, I've seen how pressure on parishes has increased, a
lot of it due to government legislation. There is a great will out
there, a great determination to keep the local church going, and
people will do everything they can. There are some very remarkable
people who give so much of their lives to their local church: it is
very humbling to see."