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English Heritage in dispute with churches over metal theft

The soaring level of metal theft has led to a dispute between English Heritage and churches over how best to preserve historic buildings.

More than £1 million worth of metal a month is stolen from churches by organised gangs.

Thieves strip lead from roofs which they can sell to scrap dealers and cash in on high metal prices. Many churches are now replacing stolen lead with cheaper alternatives, like felt or stainless steel, to make it less tempting to thieves.

But English Heritage has stopped them from doing so to preserve the historic nature of the building.

A spokeswoman said: There are good reasons why our guidance recommends like-for-like replacement lead is very durable and performs extremely well as a roofing material. It can easily be repaired and much of it comes from recycled sources. It is also authentic and beautiful.

But our guidance is by no means a diktat and each case should be considered on merits. If replacing lead is not immediately affordable, we recommend that owners find a temporary solution using materials such as felt which can last as long as 10 years.

St Helens Parish Church based in South Yorkshire has had a spate of roof thefts over the past year and has got the green light from English Heritage to replace its Eighteenth-Century lead roof with stainless steel.

Lay minister Chris Leverton who has spent thousands of pounds fitting an alarm system, said: If your church is vulnerable than you need to look at using alternative materials which will not be attractive to thieves and invest in security systems.

According to Ecclesiastical Insurance, which provides cover for most Church of England properties, there has been a steep increase in the number of parishes claiming for metal theft.
Ecclesiastical Insurance spokesman Chris Pitt said that they were paying out £1 million a month. Last year there were 2,300 claims at a cost of £9m.

Pitt said: We need to be pragmatic about this problem. Yes we want to maintain historic buildings for the future but we need to make sure churches are protected and it will be difficult to replace lead with lead in some places.

He said that more people in communities should be using churches not just necessarily for religious reasons but for community purposes as well. Pitt continued: If churches are only used for one hour a week with a small congregation than this will not deter thieves.

Pitt said that when metal prices fall the problem would die down.

Previous story, Church roof theft 'epidemic', 12/12/07

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