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Slash metal theft

01 March 2012

Roundtable explores ways to counter the rise in metal theft

The UK needs a coordinated approach to find solutions to the country’s increasing metal theft epidemic. This was the conclusion from representatives of the Home Office, Association of Chief Police Officers, Institute of Materials, the Church of England and VPS, The Vacant Property Specialists, who met at the end of February 2012 to discuss ways in which the property industry can protect its assets – chiefly buildings and construction sites – from this escalating crime.

The demand for valuable metals, particularly copper and lead, but also increasingly wood, stone and diesel, has turned what was once a minor nuisance into a major problem for property owners, as buildings continue to attract metal thieves who can quickly turn stolen goods into lucrative amounts of cash at scrap metal dealers, before export to China and the Far East.

During the debate, attendees discussed the solutions to the increased pillaging of metals from the built environment, which is now one of the fastest growing crimes in the country and estimated to be costing the UK £770 million a year.

Paul Crowther, Deputy Chief Constable of the British Transport Police and head of the metal theft task force of the Association of Chief Police Officers, stated that the problem has emerged over the last four years and is mainly a market driven crime. During the discussions, he described how it is a difficult crime to deal with, unless identified early. He likened it to the drugs market in reverse - small packages of metal built up and then exported to the East. Crowther also said: “It is a lucrative crime, as it is low risk but high reward.”

In the UK, on average eight churches a day suffer from metal theft related crimes, Dr David Knight, Senior Conservation Officer, Cathedral and Church Buildings Division, of the Church of England, explained. He also described the problem as a ‘gradual erosion of heritage’.

Looking to solutions, attendees agreed that a robust licensing scheme or a total ban of cash payments would help make a difference. The Home Secretary recently announced forthcoming legislation through amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which are due for royal assent before the summer. These include a new criminal offence to prohibit cash payments to purchase scrap metal and increased fines for offences under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964.

Additional solutions debated included improved recyclability, new metal composites, traceability deterrents or the use of alternative materials.

Carol Larkin, of the Designing out Crime Team at the Home Office, stated that metal theft is a huge problem that the government recognises. Her team is liaising with those in the industry, utilities sector, police force and others affected by this issue to deliver an effective solution.

Dr Bernie Rickinson, CEO of the Institute of Materials and leader of the metal theft steering group at the Forum for Innovation in Crime Prevention, explained that pressures from increasing demand, security of supply, material scarcity, market speculation and environmental factors are all driving the problem, which he feels is here to stay.

Hosting the debate, Mark Silver, Chief Executive Officer at VPS, said: “Coming together to discuss solutions to this increasing problem is important, as metal theft affects not only the built environment but the wider community. It also has a negative impact on our economy at a time when Britain is already suffering from the downturn. The fact that recognition of this epidemic increases daily, as more people are affected, helps further raise awareness, leading to greater action and additional ways to combat this problem.”

“As a country, we need to take ownership of this issue and implement some real solutions, which make materials more difficult to acquire for thieves and less lucrative to sell,” Silver concluded.

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