The thieves on a hot lead roof...

PUBLISHED: 16:16 16 January 2008 | UPDATED: 11:27 01 July 2010

YOU would be forgiven for thinking the theft of lead from the roof of the local parish church had nothing to do with the rise of major economies in the Far East. But the growth industry in countries like China and South Korea have seen the demand for r

YOU would be forgiven for thinking the theft of lead from the roof of the local parish church had nothing to do with the rise of major economies in the Far East.

But the growth industry in countries like China and South Korea have seen the demand for raw materials like copper and lead grow every day. Metal is now a much needed commodity, and international dealers are prepared to pay vast sums of money for it.

There is a profit to be made and, with growing demand, comes growing prices, and criminals who have quickly realised scrap dealers will pay more anf more for the valuable goods.

Lead theft has been a particular problem, with church roofs, schools and public buildings being targeted by thieves looking to make quick cash.

Three years ago,across north west Kent there were a mere 30 reported lead thefts. This has risen to a staggering 400 incidents last year.

Detective Gerry Marsh, of Kent Police, has been involved with investigating lead thefts across the county. He has seen the prices increase significantly over the course of just one year.

He said: "A year ago, a ton of lead would have got you just £200. Now, scrap dealers will pay up to £1000 a ton, £1 a kilo.

"In Dartford and Gravesham, there are the smaller scrap dealers, but as you move towards Medway, or into Erith and south East London, there are largerdealers and the prices they pay for the metals is reflected across the area.

"There has no doubt been a significant increase in these theftsand because of the sleeping giants in the Far East, metal has become an attractive item to steal.

"We identify hotspot areas, which can vary from very old buildings, where there tends to be a lot of lead around windows or roofs, to much newer ones, where the developer has used lead to give the houses the appearance of being old.

"It doesn't take much for a thief to bunkonto a roof, under the cover of darkness and, without much man power, make off with £40 or £50 of lead.

"It is not a crime involving organised gangs, it involves the lower end thieves. There is money to be made but not enough to make it really attractive."

The impact of these thefts has been felt right across north Kent and south East London. Raids have left churches and schools counting the cost.

In August last year, St Peter and St Paul's Church in Swanscombe had £,1000 worth of lead stolen from its roof in two separate raids over the course of just one week.

More than £5,000 of lead was also stolen from a playground gazebo at Brent Primary School in Dartford in November.The metal was taken from the roof of a wooden gazebo bought with money that pupils helped to raise.

Headteacher Sue Nicholson said: "It's upsetting for children that after all the hard work they put in fundraising, somebody has gone and done this. It makes me sad that there are people in society who want to cause damage to a thing that was obviously for children."

The school had fallen victim to two other metal thefts during the summer holidays, when lead was taken from the roof of the main building and copper piping from the children's drinking fountain.

Lead was also stolen from the roof of York Road Junior School, Dartford, in the same month and in Higham, on Lower Rochester Road, in July, copper wiring worth £25,000 was stolen from ducting installed under a grass verge.

In August a man was fined £60 and given a 12 month conditional discharge at Dartford Magistrates' Court after he was caught red handed with £1,500 worth of lead he had taken from the roof of a public toilet in Parrock Street, Gravesend.

In December during a week-long police sting at the Dartford Crossing to cut down on drink driving and drivers not wearing seat belts, a Ford Transit van was stopped which contained three drums of copper that the driver couldn't account for. The discovery is being investigated by police.

Bexley has seen its fair share of metal thefts too. During July and October, there were 221 offences reported. Of these, 92 residential buildings were hit, private businesses 59 times, schools and colleges 34 times, council buildings 19 times and religious buildings 17 times. In November thieves stole £4000 from the roof of one of Bexley's most historic and listed buildings, Lesnes Abbey in Abbey Wood.

Bexley borough Police Commander Tony Dawson said: "For local residents and businesses to be affected by the world market in metal prices is a cause for concern. The theft of lead is a particular problem in the south-east of the capital and has been increasing at a rapid rate since January last year.

"Our officers are proactively targeting likely vehicles that may be carrying stolen metals and they will use police powers to stop and search suspicious individuals and vehicles."

Sixteen vehicles carrying scrap metals were stopped and searched in November in Erith. Three people were arrested at the roadside for suspected theft of lead and a further six people were later arrested on similar charges. In one van police found three youths hiding in the back with six rolls of roofing lead

Two products are currently available on the market which are being used in the fight against metal thefts.

Select DNA and SmartWater are special paints that leave a secret mark onto lead and other metals, that mean police can use special UV detectors to identify items that may have been stolen and where it came from.

The Diocese of Rochester, which covers north Kent and the boroughs of Bromley and Bexley, is now issuing free SmartWater paint through their insurance company.

St Peter and St Paul's Church, in Church Road, Bromley, is one church that is set to benefit.

Vicar Michael Camp said: "Like a number of other churches we also fell victim to lead thieves. It's terrible.

"In November, we realised that lead had been stripped away from all of the windows, which has cost us a considerable amount of money to replace it.

"We have been speaking with the Disocese of Rochester, who are now going to supply us with SmartWater, which we are going to use to paint the roof and the windows."

Mr Marsh continued: "Smart water and Select DNA are two good products that will help in the battle against the thieves.

"They don't realise the impact that it has on the people that are targeted. I compare it to like stealing a car radio. You break into a car, nick the radio worth £50, but cause hundreds of pounds worth of damage in the process."

Even the dealers are being targeted.

Keith Harris, 67, owner of Gravesend Metal Recycling in Wharf Road, Gravesend, has been in the trade for 52 years, and deals in all metals, including household electricity wire which is shipped off to China to be stripped.

"My business has been broken into by thieves 26 times in the last year. It's ridiculous. They break through the fences and steal the household wire, the copper, the lead.

"They stole £20,000 worth of stainless steal in one break in. But this has been going on for years. I have been broken into so many times.

"Nearly all of our business comes from tradesmen, roofers or plumbers who might bring in the copper piping. Prices change all the time, it just depends on the demand."

But what can the police or scrap dealers do to combat the problem?

Mr Harris continued: "When someone brings us in scrap, we will weigh it, and take their name and address, there vehicle registration, if they have one, but that is all we can do."

Police liaise closely with the major scrap dealers in the area to try and keep a check on the illegal trade.

Mr Marsh says that current legislation scrap dealers have to adhere to dates back to 1964.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the current trend continues the government might be forced to look at changing the legislation. It might just put a stop to the low end offenders. Anything that can be done to prevent the thefts is a good idea.

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