SENIOR church figures have been lobbying the Government to introduce a law to bar scrap-metal dealers — the main recipients of stolen lead from churches — from trading in cash.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Tony Baldry MP, and Anne Sloman, who chairs the Church Buildings Council, last month met the minister at the Home Office responsible for crime prevention, Baroness Browning.
At a meeting of parliamentarians on 22 June, Lady Browning said that scrap-metal dealers were “the main route for offloading stolen metal”. She said that discussions were “under way with a number of government departments . . . to explore whether it is feasible to introduce tighter regulations on the scrap-metal industry.
“We need to move to a position where the market is tightened and that, where scrap-metal dealers deal in stolen material, tools are available to effectively deal with such unlawful behaviour.”
Lady Browning said that the Government was considering “a number of potential options”, including “the possibility of moving away from cash as a method of payment for this industry”.
Mr Baldry said that he thought that the Government was “convinced of the seriousness of the problem”. He hoped to see further developments when the House of Commons returned from its summer recess in September.
At a fringe meeting at the General Synod on Saturday, Mr Baldry asked Synod members to write to their MPs asking them to put pressure on the Government to introduce a law preventing scrap-metal dealers from using cash.
The diocese of Sheffield announced this week that lead-thieves had stolen “a huge amount of lead” from the roof of a Grade I Listed church, St Lawrence’s, Hatfield, Doncaster. It estimated that the cost of re-roofing the church would be about £100,000. The Vicar of Hatfield, the Revd Paul Wilson, said that the church’s pipe organ, which was recently restored at a cost of nearly £90,000, “was left in a vulnerable position”.
Last week, thieves targeted Romsey Abbey in Hampshire, stealing lead from its rare Saxon roof, the latest in a number of such thefts in the area. Brigadier Tony Berry, a member of Broughton Parochial Church Council, told the Southern Daily Echo that legislation should be introduced “to require people moving and receiving lead to . . . show a licence”.
On Monday, Carlisle Crown Court heard that a village was left “desecrated, violated, and devastated” after so much lead was stolen from its church roof that the building was rendered unusable. The Westmorland Gazette reported that Angus Harron, a 25-year-old drug addict, “returned again and again to strip lead” from the roof of St Michael’s, Shap, in Cumbria.
Last month, the Vicar and the organist of St Andrew’s, Hornchurch, in the Chelmsford diocese, helped police catch a metal thief after sleeping over in the building waiting for the criminals to strike. The Revd Barry Hobson and Andrew Losq were “lying in wait” for the thieves after the church’s copper roof had been targeted seven times in a month by thieves.
About £20,000-worth of copper from the Grade I listed building had been stolen, prompting the Vicar, organist, and a member of the congregation, Phil Jones, to set up a sleepover rota to try to foil the thieves.
The thieves, Mr Hobson said, “had already taken about 25 per cent of the roof, and it seemed they weren’t going to stop until they had everything they could get their hands on. The police didn’t have the staff to mount a long-term observation; so the three of us decided to take it in turns to sleep in the church in pairs.”
Earlier this month, St Michael’s, St Albans, won an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate after it was denied planning permission by St Albans district council to replace stolen metal with terne-coated stainless steel, which is harder for thieves to take.
The church was granted a faculty by St Albans diocesan advisory committee to install the stainless steel, but the district council said that it could affect the appearance of the building, which is in a conservation area.
The Vicar of St Michael’s, the Revd Brett Gray, said that he hoped that this would set a future precedent in these cases. “It’s become something of a postcode lottery, as some councils will go along with the faculty decision, but ours didn’t. Inviting us to put lead back on the roof is basically asking parishes to commit financial self-immolation.
“The total cost of this for us has been about £100,000. We’re a relatively well-off church, but we couldn’t do this two or three times.”