The Met’s plant intelligence unit – funded by insurers – has saved the industry £2m in eight weeks. Lauren MacGillivray and photographer Cecile Mella joined the hunt for stolen goods at Tilbury port

A biting wind whips off the Thames and blows across the 7km of quay at the Port of Tilbury in Essex. A small group of police officers pick their way around the rusty docks, sorting through mountains of dirty yellow metal as they hunt for stolen machines.

They rely mostly on gut instinct. At best, they will find only a couple of pieces a day. But even one bust can mean a huge recovery for insurers.

Insurance Times joined the squad for a day to see the Metropolitan police’s plant and agricultural national intelligence unit in action. The unit became operational in October to fight theft of plant from construction sites. Orchestrated by organised gangs, it costs insurers £600m a year. The three-man unit is funded by five insurers – Allianz, RSA, HSB Haughton, Zurich and Norwich Union – which have committed a total of £250,000 over two years.

The investment is already paying off. In the two months since it started work, the unit has recovered almost £2m worth of machinery – not bad considering its limited manpower means it has been concentrating on the South East.

But there’s a long way to go.

“Word does get around when you start targeting things,” says James Elliott, one of the squad’s two detective constables (the other two members are Detective Constable Zain Sibilant and researcher Ben Hewing). “If we’re down here every day, it will soon get to the thieves. It’s always going to go on but hopefully we can reduce it to a certain extent and make it harder for them.”

The unit’s biggest success came in its first week when a rare timber shredder worth £250,000 and known as “the Beast” was recovered in Poland after it was stolen from London Docklands.

A tip-off led to the find. Loss adjuster and construction expert Buckley Scott Associates had been investigating a claim about the stolen shredder. It called the US head office of the sole Beast dealer, Global Recycling. The company contacted its networks and, within 24 hours, Buckley Scott was sent of a photo of the stolen machine from a Polish dealer.

British police officers worked with Interpol and secured a recovery for Gable Insurance.

“As a company with expertise in plant, we can share our data with police if we suspect anything,” says Jeremy Buckley, managing director of Buckley Scott. “When we found out information about it [the Beast], we passed it to police. We knew only one manufacturer made it. We made sure every national dealer was notified that it was a stolen machine.”

On the day Insurance Times visited Tilbury, a stolen Hyster forklift truck worth about £15,000 was discovered, strapped down on a flat bed and buried between lorry tyres and axles. The machine had been stolen in Essex at the beginning of October and was allegedly destined for Ghana on the day it was found at the port.

The plant theft unit grew out of Operation Cesar (Construction Equipment Security and Registration), which was launched by the Met in April 2007. Cesar tags and tracks plant equipment to deter and catch criminals.

The unit also works with the Met’s vehicle crime intelligence service, which supplied three officers for the day at Tilbury. Detectives Mark Tidy, Simon Griggs and Chris Ruff were also joined by Constable Simon Whitaker, a crime reduction officer for Port of Tilbury Police, as well as Elliott.

Most of the shops in sight at Tilbury – a chippie, a £1 store and an Indian takeaway – are closed at 8.30am. The only open cafe provides a welcome cup of coffee – and its inhabitants offer a potted history of the town.

When asked where the high street is, the waitress chuckles and says, “This is it.” The other customers give a friendly but beleaguered laugh. Most of the town’s residents used to work in the docks but mass unemployment hit after shipping containers were introduced in the early 1970s. The locals say that other than a few seamen’s clubs, there’s only one pub in town.

At 8.45am, Elliott arrives in civilian clothes and driving an undercover vehicle. Five minutes later, we meet up with the other officers inside a trailer that houses the port police. Donning hard hats and vests, we head out to sift through some of the 500,000 m2 of warehouse space.

The search starts with a tour of a roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ship, made to carry wheeled cargo such as cars, lorries and trailers. The ship is 12 storeys high; each about the size of two-and-a-half football pitches. The ceilings are so low that you have to bend to avoid smashing your head on cement beams. Each storey is rammed with vehicles and equipment, which are secured by chains or straps attached to rusty metal hooks.

It becomes clear just how difficult and tedious the task is for such a small team.

“It’s sheer volume,” says Whitaker. “One of the major issues with plant is the traceability of it. It’s not generally registered on a computer system as an entity in its own right, like a car would be. The ways to check it are more restricted. It’s gradually getting better but plant is exceedingly expensive. Even a five-year-old machine could be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.”

Whitaker has a few tricks up his sleeve, however. Instead of just checking serial numbers, he considers the origin and destination of equipment. A machine heading to eastern Europe would raise his suspicions because of the number of stolen machines that end up there.

The origins and destinations are written on a piece of paper taped to the machine. But sometimes, the vehicle might have been stolen from another location before it was shipped ‘

‘ out. So Whitaker checks the driver’s manual – he’s even looked for coins between the seats to help determine the real origin.

The officers also look to see whether the carved or “stamped-in” serial number, as well as the manufacturer’s plate, have been tampered with. Sometimes thieves paint over the stamped-in number. To get round this, the police rub in acetone – on this day, nail polish remover.

Once they’re able to get an identification number, the officers call their researcher Hewing, who runs a check. Older machines are more tricky as they tend to have changed hands many times since leaving the manufacturer.

The search gets even tougher if the machines are buried inside containers or loaded on lorries.

“That could take you a day just to go through that,” says Whitaker, looking at the back of a lorry that has been welded shut. “You have to cut it open and it will be loaded solid. You go through it piece by piece. Mattresses are a favourite to cover things up but we’ve had fibreglass insulation too – I itched for a week after that.”

The officers have to be careful when they open any lorry or container; one of Whitaker’s former colleagues was once buried under a pile of lawnmower engines – and survived.

After much grunt work, the squad finds the Hyster truck and the day is deemed a success. The unit is proving its worth, but is it right for insurers to fund the police?

Andrew Welch, partner and head of insurance litigation for Stephensons Solicitors, is a former police officer who worked in Manchester during the 1980s. He has his concerns.

“It has long been the case that organisations like football clubs have had to pay to have their fixtures policed,” he says. “However, we now appear to be at the situation where if hirers, leasers or insurers want to report a crime involving loss of a vehicle, they face the choice of going to local police – with the likelihood that they will receive a fairly unenthusiastic response – or getting a “Rolls Royce service” from a unit like the vehicle crime intelligence service. But in that event, they will have to pay for it via some form of sponsorship package.”

In March, Neil Clutterbuck, director of Allianz Engineering, said he hoped the plant unit would one day become self-sustaining.

But Martin Ball, underwriting and operations manager for Allianz Engineering, says further funding will be considered now that the unit has proved so successful.

“In an ideal world, insurers probably wouldn’t have to pay. But funds were simply not available to tackle this huge issue. Five insurers – we would like more – saw the benefit to both the construction industry and their own accounts and were happy to work in partnership to assist.

It is definitely not ‘privatisation’ and there is no conflict of interest in that the unit will recover plant regardless of whether it is insured by one of the companies paying for the unit. In fact, most of the unit’s early successes have resulted in recoveries to insurers who are not currently participating in the funding.”

Detective Constable Ian Elliott, James’s brother and a crime reduction officer who spearheaded the unit’s creation, adds: “We’re now trying to get more insurers on board. There are plant issues around different parts of the country so we’re looking for other companies to join in to fund a network of offices. They can give us their crime, and we can make sure it’s correctly recorded and circulated, and their assets are recovered.”

At a glance

Plant theft costs the UK insurance industry more than £600m a year

Operation Cesar (Construction Equipment Security and Registration) was launched by the Met in April 2007 to tag and track plant equipment

The Met’s plant and agricultural national intelligence unit, launched in October, has already recovered about £2m worth of machines

Five insurers –Allianz, RSA, HSB Haughton, Zurich and Norwich Union – have promised £250,000 funding for the plant unit over two years.