INCREASINGLY daring metal thefts have caused a sharp jump in the number of churches being placed on the Buildings at Risk register.
The latest annual Historic England list, published yesterday, shows that, of the 90 additions, almost half (37) are due to crime, mostly lead-theft. Only 69 places of worship already on the list have been repaired enough to be removed.
“Metal theft is one of the main issues which put our places of worship at risk,” Historic England’s head of Crime Strategy, Mark Harrison, a former police officer, said. “Stealing metal from historic church buildings is a serious and organised crime. When I was a young bobby, lead-theft was a bit of guttering here and there. The real difference in the last three to four years has been the sheer volume that’s been taken in one go. That’s been a real change in the paradigm; so that is very concerning.
“Removing large areas of lead or copper from roofs has not just a serious financial effect on church communities, but a huge effect on their morale. The metal stolen will have both historic and cultural value, and removing it leads to irreparable damage to protected historic buildings, which is why tackling this problem is so important.”
That “collateral damage” was particularly distressing. “You see all the medieval plasterwork that’s been blown, the timber work is soaked, liable to rotting, the organ’s been written off, the cushions of the pews are all soaked — all of that is heartbreaking.”
Historic England, Mr Harrison said, was working with police and church authorities and other partners to “assess the scale of metal theft across the country and develop a co-ordinated, national approach to protect those churches at the highest risk of crime”.
It has also funded a Heritage and Cultural Property Crime Analyst with Kent Police, and a Heritage and Cultural Property Crime Researcher at the National Intelligence Unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime Unit.
“Through this close partnership working, we are a step closer to achieving justice for local communities affected by metal theft and to reducing heritage crime rates overall,” Mr Harrison said.
The director of the C of E’s Cathedrals and Church Buildings Division, Becky Clark, said: “This is far from a victimless crime: it impacts on everyone in these communities. It has been really encouraging to see recent prosecutions, and we continue to work with the government and law enforcement to ensure it is treated seriously.”
One church on the list is the medieval Grade II* listed St Peter’s, Ilton, near Ilminster, in Somerset. Last February, thieves took the entire north-aisle roof, leaving a bill for £40,000. That figure has now increased substantially, as a temporary tarpaulin cover failed to keep rain out, allowing damage to plaster, other decorations, and the organ. Repairs were due to start this week.
The roof of the 14th-century, Grade I listed St Peter’s, Lowick, near Kettering, was stripped in February and still awaits repair. The Vicar, the Revd Heather Lowe, said: “We managed to cover the roof with tarpaulins before it rained, but the tarpaulins are deteriorating, and there are parts where the rain has since come in. Our builder suggested to replace it with lead would cost in the region of £100,000. Clearly, this is money we just don’t have.”
The 2020 Heritage at Risk Register lists 5097 sites, including 932 places of worship, under threat in England: 24 more than last year.