The Sack of Wessex

Pressure is being piled on MPs to toughen scrap-metal legislation in a bid to stop thieves stripping out our infrastructure in search of a quick profit.

There was a time when metal theft was more or less restricted to opportunist pilfering from building sites and removing lead from the roofs of abandoned churches. Not any more. The wholesale looting of metal has lately developed into organised international crime on an industrial scale, causing widespread damage, danger and disruption.

Churches in rural locations are targeted by well-equipped gangs operating under cover of darkness who will return on several occasions until they have taken everything. Fundraising for the repair of historic buildings puts a heavy burden on local communities; some congregations have been brought to the verge of bankruptcy and are facing the closure of their church.

Churches are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of theft of roofing material because insurance payments for damage are capped at £10,000. Repair bills can easily exceed this when rain seeps in where metal has been taken, causing damage to plasterwork and pews. And then there is the cost of replacing the roof. English Heritage has been impelled to abandon its policy of requiring ‘like-for-like’ replacement when a church roof is restored, knowing that traditional lead and copper will simply be plundered. Church bells and other treasures can be targeted too. Not even war memorials are sacred now. When the metal elements listing the names of the fallen are ripped off, the very record of history is obliterated.

Lead is in demand worldwide for lead-acid batteries and a constrained supply has fuelled speculation, driving the price higher. Even more lucrative is the trade in stolen copper which is in particular demand in emerging nations such as China, India and Brazil, so that even a few yards of cabling can net over £100 for the thief. It is reckoned that the theft of copper from lineside installations alone has cost Network Rail over £40 million in the past two years. When copper wire is removed, the signals stop working and trains have to stay where they are or be cancelled or diverted; there is no costing the time lost and the anxiety suffered by countless passengers delayed by such incidents, which are currently running at the rate of eight a day.

Even the telephone lines have not been spared, cutting off subscribers and disrupting 999 services. In some cases BT vans have been stolen by criminals who can use them to pose as legitimate workers, tear out the wires at their leisure and arouse no suspicion. Agricultural vehicles, tools and equipment, garden gates, railings, children’s swings and even metal beer kegs are also easy prey. CCTV is no obstacle: the thieves just take the cameras.

When, in the predictable chaos following the fall of Saddam, news reports told of Iraqi infrastructure grinding to a halt as equipment of all kinds was stolen, it was easy to be complacent. Iraq is Iraq. Britain is Britain. Now it is clear that the skills involved in metal theft are universally deployable and it has come into the province of serious organised crime. It is regarded as less risky than robbing a bank but potentially just as rewarding. So far, fatalities have been limited to the criminals themselves, including, astonishingly, folk attempting to steal live cable from pylons, but it can only be a matter of time before an innocent victim suffers more than mere inconvenience. Manhole covers are an obvious target and an obvious source of concern.

It has been proposed in Parliament that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 should be replaced by new legislation imposing a single licensing scheme with greater powers for the courts to shut down scrap yards that do not comply. Metal could not then be legally purchased without proof of identity and address and all trade would have to be carried on through accounts rather than with the traditional, mostly undocumented cash payments. So far, deregulatory ideology has held up the legislation and there are no signs of early action from the crooks’ best friends in power. (Crime, along with waste, increases GDP by stimulating demand for replacement items, so the Coalition are very much in favour of both.) Meanwhile, an increasing number of undertakings which use copper wire are coating it with ‘smartwater’, each preparation of which has its own ‘signature’ enabling its owners to be identified, in the unlikely event of it being recovered.

In the short-term, legislation is required urgently. So too are more stringent policing, greater community vigilance, and a tackling at source of the drug culture that underlies so much criminal activity. Now that metal theft is an established lifestyle, even a fall in commodity prices is no deterrent: in fact it acts as a spur to more theft in order to sustain value.

We are becoming an increasingly wired society, dependent on telecommunications, especially the Internet, for more and more of our daily lives. Rail transport, the backbone of all future planning for the movement of goods and passengers over any significant distance, is likewise vulnerable. Renewable energy installations, such as solar panels, also offer the lure of metal content. Economic growth, fortunately at an end in the materially obese countries of the developed world, is, for now, continuing to play a role amongst the emergent economic giants of the south and east. Their aspiration to lift themselves out of absolute poverty is a noble one. But it should not be achieved through tolerating predatory attacks on our own civilisation as we enter the era of ‘peak everything’. We have to be resolute about that. And instead of trying still to impose our way of life on other countries, it’s time to wake up to the pressing need to protect it at home.

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