Lead theft from churches is through the roof again!

Church Roof Thefts

As crimes against heritage properties across the UK, including churches and places of worship continue to surge across the UK, it is clear that security remains a major concern. In particular, lead theft from roofs is having a devastating impact on businesses, estate owners, diocese and local communities.

In this article, Farsight explores the facts and the need for stronger, proactive security measures to deter and prevent criminal gangs who have lead roofs, flashing and even drainpipes on unprotected church buildings firmly in the sights. We also outline some key security tips to keep these precious protected.

Metal thefts start to surge again

At its height, metal theft in 2011 amounted to 15,000 tonnes of metal being stolen stolen, with 7,500 tonnes of that coming from railways, statues and church roofs.  Back in 2013 alone a whopping 62,075 metal thefts were reported to police, with 31,998 of those being infrastructure related –  costing the UK around £220 million a year.

Following a crack down on scrap yard legislation in 2013 there was been a steady decline in the numbers of thefts to 13,075 in 2017.

However, this is all changing again – for the worse, with the emphasis on surging ‘infrastructure’ related metal thefts which look set to continue with buoyant scrap metal values, increasing international demand for metal, compounded by supply chain break downs during the Covid pandemic,  as well as tougher crack downs on money laundering by organised crime.

Infrastructure metal thefts up 21% in one year

Gov UK describes infrastructure related metal theft as; ‘The removal of metal that has a direct impact on the functioning of infrastructure and/or fabric of a building or machinery.’

Over the past two years, police reported metal thefts amount to a staggering 31,985. These figures published by the ONS, show a sharp increase in metal thefts from infrastructure in particular- which a major concern for many.  In fact, there was a 21% increase from 6,884 in 2018/19 to 8313 in 2019/20.

Regionally, there seems to be a difference in the volume of ‘infrastructure related metal theft’ instances, with the highest increases seen across the these five regions:

Region 2018- 2019 2019-2020 YOY Increase
1 South West 239 612 156%
2 East of England 592 1329 125%
3 East Midlands 616 927 50%
4 South East 1218 1719 41%
5 West Midlands 775 932 20%

Figures published by the Office of National Statistics – Property crime tables: year ending March 2020 (Table 21)

Why are heritage church buildings at risk from metal thieves?

Churches throughout history have used lead for their roofs, and lead has served these ancient buildings extremely well. Indeed, we would have lost many of the beautiful ancient buildings, were they not protected by lead. Because of this, lead is still the preferred material today.

According to Roundhay Roofing, lead can last up to 500 years, and is 100% recyclable, making it one of the most environmentally friendly choices when considering a roof covering.

lead

Looking at the Scrap Metal Prices UK Guide, lead is worth £1,118 per tonne. Demand for secondary lead is soaring globally and once again has become a valuable target for thieves, but why?

Lead has one of the highest metal recycling rates worldwide, higher than other metals like aluminium, cast iron and stainless steel.   Using recycled and secondary lead reduces CO2 emissions by 99% compared to traditional processes – that’s why in Europe 74% of lead comes from recycled stock.

Most notably, 85% of lead is used for acid batteries, a global industry that is estimated to be worth USD 108.4 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14.1% from 2020 to 2027. The lead-acid battery segment accounted for the largest share of 29.5% in 2019 on account of expanding applications in uninterrupted power supply (UPS), automotive, telecommunication, transport vehicles, and electric bikes.

Unfortunately, as the worldwide demand for lead continues, so too will the trend in lead theft by criminals exploiting this opportunity to cash in on this demand. You only have to scan the news media to see that this is a bleak reality already…

Church roof theft incidents increasingly hitting the headlines again…

With such a high demand and value attached to lead, so many heritage sites containing lead as part of their infrastructure are becoming ever more attractive to unscrupulous criminal gangs. News reports appearing in the media relating to lead roof thefts from heritage buildings are all too common, like these:

1. CambridgeshireCambridgeshire villages feel ‘attacked’ after criminals strip more than 30 churches bare for scrap metal –  9th Jan 2021

2. LincolnshireLead theft gang locked up after leaving churches with £2m repair bill – Jan 7th 2021

3. DorsetCheselbourne church: Thieves strip £60,000 of lead from roof – 17th March 2020

4. SomersetSomerset hit by wave of 12 lead-raids on church roofs –  13th March 2020

5. Norfolk –  It feels like a crime against the town, Rector’s anger over roof theft –  25th February 2020

…and many more besides these.


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Are our churches and heritage building roofs an easy target for criminals?

Churches and other heritage buildings are a particularly vulnerable to metal thieves, particularly those in rural locations and those with poor security in place.

According to Historic England, there 14,788 listed place of worship in England – which pose a big and attractive target for determined metal thieves to take their pick from…

heritage church roof lead theft

There are currently 932 listed places of worship on the 2020 Heritage at Risk Register with 90 being added since 2019. Historic England cite some of the most common issues that listed churches face which include heritage crime and metal theft (including lead theft), which contribute to the main threats of failing roofs, gutters, downpipes and high level stonework.

To understand the full scale of heritage crime in England, Historic England commissioned a major research study that revealed that:

“The biggest single threat is metal theft and the most threatened type of building is a church. About 3 in 8 churches or other religious buildings were damaged by crime last year.”

Of course, it not only listed churches that are at risk from heritage crime, the research also revealed that an estimated 18.7% of all listed were physically affected by crime last year – that is over 70,000 listed buildings. For almost 30,000 of those listed buildings the impact was substantial.

A separate study carried out by The Countryside Alliance – ‘Annual report into crimes on churches and religious buildings in the UK 2019-20’– found that criminals are targeting churches and other places of worship across the UK and are responsible for almost 6,000 crimes in the last year alone.  These include 278 lead and metal thefts, 2,152 general thefts, 534 burglaries and 1,750 cases of vandalism.

These shocking figures illustrate the need for some serious thought about proactive security measures that can be implemented to better protect assets, premises and people.

The high cost of lead roof theft

The damage to church buildings caused by metal theft often reaches thousands of pounds.

According to Professional Builder most of the damage done when thieves remove lead from the roof is not to the lead itself – it is to the rest of the roof. Lead ripped off a roof can cause extensive damage to high stone work, rendering and roof timbers, leaving them exposed to the elements and allowing water damage to the structure of the building as well as what is inside.

Some recent examples that illustrate the high cost of repairing the damage caused by lead theft are as follows:

1. The Church Times  reported that an organised group of lead-thieves is thought to be behind 12 attacks on 11 church roofs in Somerset over the past month. The thieves attacked the roofs on stormy nights, so that noise was covered up. Once the lead was gone, rain penetrated the buildings and caused huge damage.

Bath & Wells diocese estimates the total cost to replace the churches’ lead at around £95,000, and puts overall roof repairs, excluding damage to interiors, at £350,000.

church roof theft

2. The above image (Image credit to Barry Richardson) shows the repair work being started at a church in Bedfordshire. The BBC reported that about 20 tonnes of lead was taken from All Saint’s Church, Houghton Conquest, with estimated repair costs as high as £400,000.

The BBC report mentions Parishioners are now raising funds for the work as their insurance was only expected to pay out about £15,000. Due the high cost to replace the leaf roof and repair the damages, alternate materials have been chosen to also reduce the risk of repeat theft. Treasurer Joyce Bullock said it would be a “full-time job” for her to apply for grants to add to the pot.

3. In Oct 2020 Church Times reported:  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.”

4. Following a crime spree in 2018/2019 which affected more than 20 churches across Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Wiltshire and Yorkshire, churches across the UK are being encouraged to protect their roofs, after this spree caused over £2 million in damage to remote countryside churches.

The devastation that lead roof thefts can cause, is far more than the ‘cost to repair’ or even the alarming degradation of our heritage buildings, but is also greatly affects entire local communities  too. Ensuring the security of churches against the very real threat of roof theft is crucial to protect these premises, assets and people.

According to RCI, Jo Whyman – Risk Management Director at Ecclesiastical, a leading church insurer is said,

“The UK could see an increase in theft of metal from buildings such as churches, which is why it is vital that they take steps to protect their premises from unscrupulous offenders.”

But how?…


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How to prevent lead roof theft from churches & heritage buildings

When planning security for churches and heritage buildings, roof security is often overlooked.  As we have highlighted, it is crucial be be aware of the risks to lead roofs and not make it easy for thieves to strike. In many cases, where there are fire & intruder alarms or CCTV systems in place these can be expanded to protect the roof too.

However, when it comes to planning security measures,  Historic England points out in their Preventing Metal Theft Guide:

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the challenges of metal theft. Prevention and security measures should be tailored to your building and its location, taking cost and resource into account. The most effective measure is to use a combination of methods, some very low-cost. Your insurer may have also specific requirements regarding security measures.”

Historic England’s Preventing Metal Theft Guide recommends starting with a risk assessment and preparing a statement of significance. Their security suggestions for churches include the following:

  • Involving the community by building good relationships with neighbours and local police
  • Taking basic protective measures such as regularly checking roofs and drainage goods, making access to the roof difficult and restricting vehicle access to the site
  • Taking extra precautions when contractors are on site.
  • Marking your metal, either with forensic marking or mechanical stamping
  • Installing alarms or cameras (See below)

The benefits of installing roof protection systems to protect against lead theft

As part of its theft of metal checklist for churches, Ecclesiastical –  a leading church insurer in the UK, acknowledges that ‘additional actions such as installing an electronic roof security system or CCTV will further reduce the risk of a theft occurring’.

Ecclesiastical goes on to outline the benefits of roof protection systems for churches which include the following:

  • An effective deterrent for metal thieves
  • Able to cover large roof areas cost effectively
  • Suitable for buildings in any location, if the security system is activated, a planned response based on your specific instructions is carried out
  • If you choose an insurer approved system then cover for metal theft can be expanded.

As part of their guidance on further reducing the risk of metal theft from church roofs, Ecclesiastical recommends installing intruder detection systems that can include an electronic roof security system or CCTV. However, when it comes to installing security systems, it is advisable to call on the experience of an accredited security systems installer to ensure the right solution is identified.

In many cases, alarm and CCTV systems that are already in situ to protect churches from intruders can be expanded to include roof areas to protect against lead theft, or stand alone systems can be considered.  When it comes to installing security systems, this can be complicated depending on the property and it is advisable to call on the experience of an accredited security systems installer to ensure the right solution is identified.

The main ‘proactive’ objectives of roof alarms and CCTV is to detect intruders, deter further actions and activate a response. In the case of CCTV, surveillance recordings of  roof theft incidents can provide retrospective evidence that can be important for visual verification and prosecution.

Intruder Detection

Both alarm and CCTV systems rely on intruder detection technology, which has evolved greatly in recent years to reduce the amount of false alarms. There are a great many innovative detection devices on the market, including wired and wireless Passive Infra Red (PIR) and Active Infra Red (AIR) which suit roof protection applications.

Some CCTV cameras contain integral intruder detection technology, but stand alone intruder detector equipment can also be used to activate both alarm and CCTV systems. For example, Optex have developed a comprehensive range of intruder detector equipment that is used across wide range of sites including heritage buildings to detect intrusion on roofs – like this detector pictured below…

Choosing the right intruder detector equipment is crucial as Jon Livesey, National Security Advisor to English Heritage points out in his article written for Building Conservation. Jon says,

“It is vital to minimise the risk of false alarms. The use of inappropriate devices can lead to frequent false alarms, undermining the credibility of the system and potentially causing response to fall off to the point where a genuine attack is likely to be ignored, or the system is switched off.”

Alarm Monitoring

For churches in rural locations, ‘bells only’ alarms may not be a sufficient security solution, as if there is no immediate response to an alarm siren going off, it may not deter a determined thief which would defeat the objective. To be able to action a response to alarm activation, Jon Livesey comments,

“It is essential that an alarm triggers a response as quickly as possible but do be aware that if members of the church are asked to fulfil this role, they might be putting themselves at risk.”

Indeed, the National Crime Agency (NCA) warns that ‘Organised crime has moved into lead theft, targeting church roofs and bringing a threat of violence to anyone who tries to tackle them. The latest report published by the Countryside Alliance examining crimes at church premises reveals that their were 946 cases of assault reported to police in last 12 months.

We believe the inclusion of an alarm monitoring station partner is an important step in ensuring that immediate response can be actioned when it is needed, by professionals. This can also mean a faster response from police services when our operators can verify an alarm.

Farsight is a leading Category II  BS5979 Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) accredited by SSAIB and this is how Farsight monitor alarms…

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According to Ecclesiastical over 500 churches now have roof alarms to help protect against external lead theft.  However, there are big changes happening in the world of alarm signalling which are largely down to BT Openreach’s PSTN switchover.  It is worth asking your alarm installer whether this will affect your system’s effectiveness.  Learn more about future-proofing your alarm systems in our article: Is your alarm signalling at risk?

Another exciting development is that it is now possible to link an alarm system to your existing CCTV cameras which will allow our operators to get ‘alarm visual verification’ in ‘real time’ as an incident is in progress – which can help prioritise incidents for faster police response.

> If you plan to consider installing a new roof alarm at your church, see below for details of the Allchurch Roof Alarm Grant scheme that has now been extended to the end of 2021.

CCTV Monitoring

CCTV systems have become more sophisticated in recent years, and now provide an alternative to roof alarms, providing proactive visual verified protection when you need it.

However, we believe that remote monitoring of these systems especially out of hours is essential.  This sentiment is echoed by Jon Livesey who comments:

“To significantly improve protection, any of the above technologies could be linked to a CCTV system. This should be remotely monitored, so that all activations can be checked before contacting the police or a key-holder. The system could be linked to on-site loudspeakers so that the operator can warn the thieves that the police are on their way.”

Farsight is a leading BS8418 SSAIB  accredited Remote Video Response Centre and this is how Farsight monitors CCTV systems…

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Want to Work with Farsight?

If you are concerned about your church or heritage site being targeted by unscrupulous lead theft criminals, maybe it is time to consider bolstering your security measures and one of our   remote monitoring solutions to give you peace of mind 24/7.

To find out how we can help, or connect you with one of our approved security system installer partners, simply call our team on 0845 371 0101 or drop us a line below…

Further Info: Roof alarm grants

Allchurches Trust, one of the UK’s largest grant-making charities, has recently extended their  Roof Alarm Grant scheme until the end of 2021 and increased the amount of funding available, with grants now funding up to 50% of the cost of the alarm, up to a maximum of £2500  – protecting churches from metal theft

Allchurches Trust’s Roof Protection Scheme provides grants to help churches install roof alarms in response to the issue of metal theft, which continues to be a very challenging issue across the UK.

Find our more here