Operation Crucible – Protecting Heritage Metal and other important historic assets

Metal theft is not a new problem. It has existed for a very long time, maybe into pre-history. Certainly lead has been an attractive target for thieves for a good number of years and so called ‘urban miners’ often attacked the flashings on church roofs to generate some much needed income. This was seen by some as a way of the poor receiving some much needed funds out of perhaps necessity.

(Photo Credit: Historic England)

There has been a paradigm shift of late, since the introduction of the legislation aimed at tightening controls, has seen minor opportunist offending being replaced by large scale organised crime, where whole church roofs have been removed, often in stages. This illustrates the move to a crime fuelled by greed, with little consideration or a thought given to the communities who ultimately have to foot the bill, which is often calculated in the tens of thousands of pounds, not including collateral damage to internal fixtures and fittings.

One factor remains the same, the willingness of someone to buy the stolen metal, either with the full knowledge that the metal is stolen, or with a willingness to ignore the probability that it is stolen. 

Metal recycling is a legitimate industry, and everything has a finite life, including a church roof. We also understand that time may equal money in the recycling sector. However that is no excuse to being a willing participant in laundering stolen metal into the recycling system.

Heritage metals get lumped in with everyday metal recycling, and it is easy to overlook the history or provenance of metals entering the system. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was useful as it took cash out of the system, and brought a tightening of due diligence checks on the sellers of metal. Unfortunately, not enough was done with the legislation to tighten the checks on the identity of the metal when it enters the gates of the scrap yards.  

We are seeing metal theft from churches and historic buildings still taking place on an almost daily basis, and we reported earlier on attacks for church lead in Leicestershire, the East Midlands into East Anglia, with offences spread across Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and into Suffolk. Now we have news of attacks happening in North Yorkshire. There is a whole litany of offences where historic and ecclesiastical buildings have been targeted.

Isolated rural communities, with easy access to vulnerable lead roofs, in villages which are not far off major trunk roads. Patterns of offender are emerging and that can help to predict which buildings are the most vulnerable.   

Lincolnshire was once an epicentre of lead theft, and for the past 2 years would seem to be bucking this trend. The causes of crime are complex. One of the factors that must be considered is that Lincolnshire is the site of numerous Trace-in-Metal Pilot Sites, supported by engagement with the local scrap yards. Lincolnshire isthe county with the most Trace-in-Metal installations.

Indeed, it is to the credit of the Diocese of Lincoln that they embraced the Trace-in-Metal system and supported the early trials of the system. To date, save for one very minor theft at one site, the Trace-in-Metal installations are still all in place and the county is enjoying very low levels of lead theft.

This is not the case elsewhere, as stated, and Trace-in-Metal welcome the approach being taken by Operation Crucible in placing partnerships at the heart of metal theft prevention.

Representatives of Trace-in-Metal were invited to the problem solving seminar held at Leicestershire Police HQ on Friday 9th September 2016. This event was jointly hosted by Leicestershire Police and the National Crime Advisor to Historic England, Mark Harrison, who is the driving force behind Operation Crucible, Heritage Watch and other crime prevention initiatives.

The seminar concentrated on bringing together stakeholders from across metal theft and heritage and the day was broken down into exercises which allowed participants to deconstruct metal theft, examine and analyse the drivers behind the crime, and suggest practical measures to reduce offending.

The Trace-in-Metal approach to preventing lead theft puts partnerships at the centre of it’s system, based on indelibly marking metal assets with coded microdots that will survive the metal recycling process. The information is stored on a secure database, and allows for pro-active alerts and intelligence to be shared with other agencies, including Scrap Metal Dealers and the police.

Given the resource demands being placed upon the police, the system also provides communities with a valuable resource which can help raise awareness of the vulnerability of a church roof, and because their lead roof is now traceable IF stolen, provides communities with the motivation to help protect their church.

Trace-in-Metal consider Scrap Metal Dealers to be vital in creating this deterrent. To embrace this approach, metal recyclers are being encouraged to sign up to become Trace-in-Metal detectors, and this enables them to be trained in the system, be provided with detector equipment and signage to display in their premises, warning criminals that they are equipped to detect Trace-in-Metal.

Greed is a big motivator when it comes to acquisitive crime, especially metal theft. The phrase ‘cash is king’ is often used in business, and metal recyclers no doubt follow this doctrine, and with cash now being outlawed in metal recycling, some would question why metal theft is still the problem it is.

The answer, or answers have been sought for some time, and there are any number of reasons. The main one is that there are those within the industry who are willing to run the risk of receiving stolen metal for profit. They can control the price, because the thieves need the route to dispose of their ill-gotten gains.

Metal is hard to identify, previous ownership is very difficult to establish, and slipping a few tons of stolen lead into a skip of genuine metal is easily to do.

Enforcement activity has all but dried up. The Metal Theft Task Force with £5m of Government funding was useful in carrying out a number of intelligence led operations up to the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. It is unlikely to be repeated.

Trace-in-Metal provides a unique resource that has never been needed as much as it is today. By having the ability to trace metal assets throughout the recycling ‘food chain’ Law enforcement agencies and the recycling industry have a tool that they can use to establish the provenience of the metal they are buying.

This is a resource not previously available and by warning recyclers regarding the loss of metals, they can be on the lookout for the stolen metal, which can easily be identified as stolen. Trace-in-Metal is a very useful tool to both Police and the Recyclers and will provide the irrefutable proof that a metal asset is stolen.

This is a very powerful deterrent.

We know that lead recycling in the UK is almost a closed loop. The demand for new lead products in the UK more or less keeps up with that entering the recycling system. We also know that size wise, in proportion to the total metals being recycled, lead is a small part. Therefore, it should not be too difficult for dealers to start to question the provenance of the lead they are buying.

Trace-in-Metal can help. We can provide the intelligence and the alerts that will let the scrap metal dealers know that the lead they are buying is clean. More importantly, we can also tell them and the police if it has been stolen.

This is a step-change and provides the strong deterrent that is needed to keep lead where it belongs, on the roof, or as we say…….it is …..too hot to handle!