The price of metal has risen sky high making pipes, railings and even boilers an irresistible target to thieves. Chloë Stothart finds out how one housing association is tackling the growing problem of metal theft
Flooded homes, cancelled trains, power cuts, collapsing roofs, explosions and even 10 deaths - metal theft has a lot to answer for. The rising price of copper, lead, wrought iron and brass over the past few years has led thieves to steal anything from power cables to boilers and even door knockers to sell on the black market or to scrapyards.
Consultancy Deloitte estimates the thefts cost the British economy between £220 million and £260 million a year while the Association of Chief Police Officers put the cost to the nation at £777 million in 2010.
Such is the scale of the problem that in November the government announced a taskforce to tackle metal theft, although its remit and personnel have yet to be decided.
Metal theft has also become a headache for social landlords. There are no national figures for the crime in the sector, but there have been plenty of incidents.
In Liverpool an explosion in a block of flats in March 2011 owned by Liverpool Housing Trust was blamed on the theft of copper pipes, while a residential block owned by Birmingham Council was flooded in May 2011 after a boiler was stolen.
Sanctuary Housing found itself the sustained target of metal thieves during its £90 million, five-year renovation of 2,500 homes on the Shiregreen estate in Sheffield.
After a spate of boiler thefts, which cost Sanctuary £140,000 in replacements and repairs, the 79,000-home housing association teamed up with South Yorkshire Police to fight back. The resulting operation was so successful it was awarded an Inside Housing Sustainable Housing Award last year. So how did they do it? And given the scale of the problem, should other landlords be following its lead?
The scheme began in January 2008 when police inspector Deborah Pickering noticed an increase in burglaries during the renovation of homes on the Shiregreen estate. Sanctuary moved its tenants into temporary accommodation while their homes were given a complete makeover, including new boilers.
‘I noticed that as soon as the tenants moved out the homes were broken into and all the metal was stolen, especially the boilers and central heating system. They were stealing the metal for scrap,’ says Inspector Pickering. ‘Some of it was being taken by local criminals who lived on the estate because they could see when a house was empty and strip it out.’
While residents did not lose any possessions during the break-ins at the empty homes, the thefts did cause fear among people living on the estate.
‘People worry if there are police attending and we were worried about the impact on the community,’ says Helen Wright, head of development for Sanctuary’s north region.
To prevent break-ins, contractor Frank Haslam Milan stripped out the old boilers and pipes on the day tenants moved out. The doors and windows were sealed with security screens and notices put up to tell would-be thieves that the metal had gone. This pretty much stopped the theft of the old metal, but the thieves changed tactics.
‘The offenders started breaking into renovated houses [before the tenants moved back in] and were stealing new boilers,’ says Inspector Pickering.
The houses were flooded when the boilers were ripped out. Repairing the damage was not only expensive, but ate into a tight timetable for the regeneration programme, says Ms Wright.
The police thought the stolen boilers were being sold for use because they weren’t showing up at scrapyards. During the operation the new boilers were branded with ultra-violet markings as well as a tamper-proof Sanctuary logo, so anyone trying to buy one would know it was stolen.
Caught in the act
The next stage was to catch the thieves. In July 2008, police installed a GPS tracker in a newly installed boiler and sprayed it with “smart water”, permanently marking it with a liquid that is only visible under ultraviolet light.
Sure enough, the boiler was stolen and traced to a house on the estate. Smart water markings were found on three people who lived there, proving they had handled the stolen boiler. They were convicted of the theft and given prison sentences. Members of another gang of metal thieves, who also lived on the estate, were arrested for handling stolen goods.
In November 2008, Sanctuary began removing the control panels from the new boilers, only reinstalling them once tenants had moved back into their homes. The control panels are the most expensive part of the boiler and can only be bought by a registered gas engineer. Without the control panel the boilers were less attractive to thieves and the number of boiler thefts fell from seven in that month to two in January 2009.
‘Once word got out in the criminal community they knew there was no point stealing boilers because they didn’t work and had smart water on them,’ says Inspector Pickering, ‘that stopped it dead.’
The final boiler of the renovation scheme was installed at the end of the project in November 2011. During the joint operation with South Yorkshire Police boiler thefts on the Shiregreen estate fell from 79 in 2007/08 at a cost to Sanctuary of £140,000 to replace the boilers and repair the damage, to just one theft in 2010/11. This single incident cost the housing association £30,000 to replace the boiler and fix the damage caused.
But although stealing boilers from inside Sanctuary’s properties on the estate has stopped, the problem of metal theft has not.
Steven Bagnall, a member of the local tenants’ and residents’ association, says the situation has improved, but metal items such as gates are still regularly taken.
He says he has even seen children stealing metal from his roof and that scrap merchants often walk through gardens and pathways looking for metal. ‘They’ll take anything if they think it is scrap and sometimes even if it is not,’ he says.
The government’s metal theft taskforce must find a way to clamp down on this. In the meantime, Sanctuary has found a way of preventing thefts from inside its homes.
Metal theft: the facts
- A tonne of copper now costs more than £6,000 in the UK.
- Earlier this month insurance and financial services company Ecclesiastical Insurance announced that in 2011 a record number of claims were made by churches for metal theft. More than 2,500 claims were recorded, surpassing the previous highest figure of more than 2,400 in 2008.
- Over the past three years, cable theft has cost the rail industry £43 million and caused misery to passengers by delaying trains for more than 16,000 hours. The problem led the British Transport Police - in partnership with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the British Metals Recycling Association, the Home Office, and Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland Police - to launch a trial scheme in the north east of England this month. Dubbed Operation Tornado, it aims to prevent the easy movement of stolen scrap metal. The operation will require those who are selling scrap metal to provide proof of their identity and address.