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Thieves set sights on historic stone, not lead

14 March 2024

Metal theft from churches, which increased during Covid lockdowns, has since declined

Simon Headley

The roof of St Denys’s, Goadby Marwood, in Leicestershire, stripped of its lead in 2019

The roof of St Denys’s, Goadby Marwood, in Leicestershire, stripped of its lead in 2019

METAL theft from historic places of worship, which increased during Covid lockdowns, has since declined owing to “effective preventative and enforcement action”, new research from Historic England and National Police Chiefs’ Council has shown.

Theft both of historic stone, including York stone, and of cultural artefacts, however, is on the rise: cultural property worth more than £3.2 million worth was stolen in the period 2021-22.

The organisations — part of the ARCH partnership (Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage) — published the findings on Wednesday. They warn church communities that, despite the decline in lead-theft from church buildings, “it is crucial for owners and communities to remain vigilant.”

The research shows that the theft of metal roofing, particularly lead, from historic churches increased by 41 per cent during the pandemic. “These offences are likely to have been committed by both opportunistic offenders and organised crime groups,” the organisations say.

Between January and November 2023, church lead-theft was 26.2 per cent less than in the same period in 2022. “This may have been helped by improved security measures, the introduction of Heritage Watch schemes, and the prosecution of two organised crime groups responsible for stealing high volumes of roofing lead from historic church buildings from Dorset to Yorkshire.”

The latest figures, the research says, show that lead prices increased by eight per cent between January and November 2023, on the same period the year before.

There are 943 places of worship on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register in 2023, of which 53 are places of worship under threat because of heritage crime, including arson, theft, and vandalism.

The Heritage and Cultural Property Crime research was funded by Historic England, and carried out by crime analysts at Opal — the National Crime Intelligence Unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime — and was conducted between February 2020 and February 2023.

The main recommendations include the introduction of appropriate police systems, as well as better recording, collating, analysis, and communication of heritage-related crimes and incidents. A lack of data, the organisations say, currently “limits our understanding of the true scale and extent of heritage crime in the historic environment and how to deal with it”.

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