Police across the UK are targeting metal thieves taking advantage of the rising demand for valuable materials.
Experts estimate the illegal metal trade costs the economy almost £360 million every year. Thirty-eight police forces have joined two days of action, visiting scrap yards, tracking suspects and monitoring suspicious vehicles.
Drain covers, church roof lead, railway cables and even memorial plaques and statues are among items stolen by thieves. Theft of all metal materials has grown by 150 per cent over the last two years, according to police figures.
Examples of the impact of the illegal trade include:
* Councils in Newham, Doncaster, Devon and West Bromwich have been forced to pick up the bill for stolen drain covers, signs and other street property;
* More than 16,000 churches have been sent “smart water” with which to mark their property to deter thieves;
* A two-tonne, £3 million bronze sculpture taken from the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire in 2005 may have been melted down for scrap;
* Four bronze plaques, worth £2,000 each, were stolen from a naval war memorial on Plymouth Hoe earlier this month;
* An explosion in a terraced street in Bolton last year may have been caused by thieves stealing copper piping;
* Severe delays have been caused on the railways nationwide as a result of thieves stealing copper signal cable;
* Officers from the Metropolitan Police and Thames Valley targeted organised gangs snatching cars from the street for scrap in west and north west London last month.
Assistant Chief Constable Paul Crowther, of British Transport Police, said the rising value of metal overseas is fuelling the trade.
He said: “Signalling cable, bronze statues, drain hole covers and even the metal from church and school roofs has been stolen, with a substantial cost to communities and industry.
“This is far from being a victimless crime. Thousands of people have seen their community facilities stolen or damaged by thieves looking for a quick gain, or have suffered service disruption to railways and telecoms.
“The problem ranges from opportunistic to large-scale organised theft.”
Mr Crowther said police were also investigating a growing number of illegal scrap metal dealers. He said: “By removing the market for stolen metals, the theft becomes much less attractive and so we are encouraging scrap metal dealers to keep detailed records of transactions and be particularly vigilant in reporting to police if they suspect metals have been stolen.”
Police were working alongside officers from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (Vosa) and the Environment Agency.
Most criminal activity is undertaken in either unroadworthy or untaxed vehicles and anyone carrying scrap metal requires a waste carrier’s licence.
Earlier this year, British Transport Police (BTP) joined a European day of action against cable thieves. Eleven police forces from Spain to Switzerland also took part in the event co-ordinated through Railpol, the European railway policing organisation.
In March, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) held its first metal theft conference in London.
Between January 1 and April 16 this year, BTP recorded 637 metal theft offences and arrested 153 people. In 2007, BTP recorded 1,928 metal theft offences and arrested 396 people.