Churches can be an attractive target for metal thieves, especially when world prices swell. We look at the damage a 12th century abbey suffered and finds how one insurer is determined to take the gangs on

Tewkesbury Abbey, with its intricate Norman architecture and bucolic surroundings, is a breathtaking sight on a cloudless autumn day. Built at the turn of the 12th century, it has survived some of history’s defining moments, from the destruction of Henry VIII’s dissolution to the bombing of the German Luftwaffe during the Second World War and, most recently, the great floods that swamped middle England in 2007.

But all that changed on the night of 11 November last year when a small gang ripped the heart out of the abbey roof. It’s thefts like these that cost church specialist insurer Ecclesiastical £18m in 2007 and 2008.

Looking out from the roof on to the lush Gloucester landscape, church warden Janet Davis, who has a great love for the abbey’s history and architecture, describes how the thieves climbed up a drainage pipe. The raised structure of the roof blocked them from view and, probably using knives or something similar, they cut the lead away. They then threw the lead on to the grass below.

Davis points down 40ft and across the cathedral’s lush greenery to a wooden gate. “They drove a jeep through the gate, loaded it up and drove off,” she says flatly.

From then on, it was a race against time to find temporary cover before the heavy rains arrived. Eventually the cathedral settled on pond-liner, which, thankfully, did a remarkably good job.

Davis, keen to lead a tour of the church’s magnificent interiors, potters off down the abbey’s tiny winding stone stairs from the roof.

‘It could have been a disaster’

Pointing to the magnificent church organ that towers above her, she says: “The rain could have poured in and damaged it. Thankfully, that never happened but it could have been a real disaster. We did have some rain coming through but luckily there was no extensive damage.”

The final bill for the roof came to £24,000. “But I don’t suppose the culprits got much more than £1,200 for it.” No one has been charged.

The damage is typical of church metal thefts up and down the country, and it is Ecclesiastical that often picks up the bill. Those bills have been flooding in over the past three years as thieves flog off metal to scrap dealers keen to take advantage of the surge in global commodity prices. Increased payouts were a significant factor in Ecclesiastical’s £21.5m pre-tax loss for the first six months of last year.

The insurer has bounced back strongly since, thanks to a recession-related drop in commodity prices and surging returns from the stock market. But it recognises global prices are outside its control, so now is taking the fight to the criminals.

Its greatest weapon is SmartWater, a liquid that becomes invisible once it has been brushed on property. It then shines up under UV lighting with a special code identifying the owner. The police can then trace the stolen property, return it and gather vital evidence.

Considering Ecclesiastical insures 16,000 churches and has been handing out free kits, there is no doubting its commitment to SmartWater.

Asked how much it could save Ecclesiastical in the long term, claims and risk services director David Bonehill says: “That’s the million-dollar question. But we have confidence in it. We put signs up with warnings that it’s being used and it really is a deterrent.”

Ecclesiastical has sent SmartWater to its most at-risk churches and has offered discount rates on the product to heritage and education policyholders (depending on quantity, it costs anywhere between £80 and £790 a bottle). And it has said that it will pay out no more than £5,000 if the church fails to use the technology.

Bonehill leaves you in no doubt that SmartWater is an important piece in the jigsaw, but is not the whole picture. “We are targeting scrap metal dealers and are making police aware of our concerns. They have carried out a few raids over the past 12 months, as there are some scrap metal dealers who tend not to check the authenticity of metal. They just take it.”

Call for a code of practice

Ecclesiastical now wants the government to back a change in the code of practice for scrap metal dealers, to provide more detailed and traceable information. The Lead Contractors’ Association has adopted the suggestions.

It has also launched a nationwide campaign, giving advice and information to customers and the public. The message is clear: anyone skulking around a churchyard could be a metal thief.

Back on the technology front, the insurer is looking at some of the latest anti-theft equipment, such as infrared detection systems and touch-sensitive padding. It’s all certainly helping, but Ecclesiastical still faces significant challenges, including changes in world commodity prices. Once lead reaches a price tipping point – about $2,000 to $2,500 (£1,200 to £1,500) a tonne from its current $1,500 – thefts pick up.

The parallels between price and theft are striking. When commodity prices peaked in 2007 and 2008, Ecclesiastical paid £9m in claims for each year. The recession depressed those prices significantly; for the first nine months of this year, it has paid out £2m.

But with the global economy picking up, prices could rise again. That point is recognised by police in Northamptonshire where thefts from churchyards boomed when prices peaked. They launched an awareness campaign, beefed up patrols around churches and blitzed local media.

‘People are not aware it’s an issue’

Describing some of the problems, a police spokesman said: “A lot of churches in Northamptonshire are in rural areas. If thieves come in the middle of the night, nobody sees anything. And if there’s no CCTV then it can be difficult to trace the culprits. People also are not always aware of the problem. They may see what is going on but not really take it in because they’re not aware it’s an issue.”

Ecclesiastical also would like more convictions to end in prison sentences. At present, many courts shun custodial sentences in favour of community rehabilitation orders – which the insurer says are not enough of a deterrent.

Bonehill admits that insurers and police face a difficult battle against thieves eager to exploit the nation’s churches.

And it’s a battle in which, he says, the public do not appreciate the extent of damage that is caused. “That is something that we will keep working on.”

It is a battle the church-going community hopes Ecclesiastical wins. IT

HARD METAL

Metal theft is the fastest growing crime in the country, costing about £400m a year

In 2003, Ecclesiastical paid 10 claims costing a total of £20,000. In 2007 and 2008, it paid about 2,500 claims, costing £9m each year

The areas most badly affected by thefts in 2007 and 2008 were Southwell in Nottingham, North Yorkshire's Wakefield and Manchester

Metal theft does not affect church buildings
alone - schools and heritage properties have also been targeted, although to a lesser extent