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Stop, lead-thief!

10 May 2013

Metal-thefts have blighted churches and congregations. At what stage is legislation now, asks Rebecca Paveley

Lead astray: damage at Tewkesbury Abbey, in 2007

Lead astray: damage at Tewkesbury Abbey, in 2007

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 newspaper headlines.

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 thieves.

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 lead."

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 theft.

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 lead on.

"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."

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