Hidden cost of lead thefts threatening our Heritage

Ray Robertson, Secretary, Lead Contractors Association

Lead Contractor Association (LCA)

Stealing lead from a church roof is no longer the victimless crime traditionally portrayed. Record metal prices have resulted in regional / national organised gangs that methodically strip vulnerable sites, with the lead easily distributed through the UK network of metals reclamation merchants. Increasing demand world wide for lead acid batteries has also spawned large scale thefts by the container load to be shipped directly abroad from UK ports.

More often than not the “vulnerable sites” are church properties in remote locations where access is open and visitors are encouraged. This has meant the repeat targeting of some churches with the thieves simply waiting for the lead sheet to be replaced before stripping it off again.

Although perhaps involving relatively few people directly, the damage caused to the external building structure and internal decoration, as well as its precious, often irreplaceable contents is heartbreaking to those locals affected.

It is reported that between January and August 2011, the cost of lead stripped from ecclesiastical properties had exceeded £3.5M – more then the whole of 2010. More than 5,000 churches in the UK have now suffered from a theft of lead and this is not a problem which is going away.

Although lead thefts have been escalating chronically over the past three or four years, it affects relatively few. Ironically it has been the recent increase in the theft of copper cable and resulting massive inconvenience to thousands of rail commuters and cost to transport, power and communication companies (and their insurers) which has dramatically raised the public awareness of “metal thefts” and led to demands for action.

Now there are investigations into security systems, alarms, lighting and lead theft deterrents such as Smartwater and Led-Lok. Neighbourhood watch schemes such as Church Care and National Church Watch have quickly become a focal point for the community. The entire UK metals reclamation network (colloquially “scrap metal merchants”) has come under the microscope, with calls for changes to legislation, stricter regulation, licensing, banning of cash scales, improved identification procedures, record keeping, Certificates of Origin, etc.

The latest Guidance Note from English Heritage provides a thorough review of the theft of metal situation and contains extensive advice on preventative measures to be taken.

From the Lead Contractors Association (LCA) point of view, the raising of the profile of metal thefts is welcome and no doubt in time some of the measures already being considered and implemented may have the desired effect in eventually curtailing the current epidemic (although nothing will have the same effect as a dramatic fall in metal prices).

In the meantime however, our heritage is at risk from an as yet unconsidered threat.

Initially, lead sheet being stolen from a roof at least provided work for the leadwork specialist engaged to replace the metal like for like.

Demands for the skills of the experienced lead craftsmen increased to the extent where LCA members undertook to work to an agreed schedule of rates and an organised system approved by Ecclesiastical Insurance which meant the rapid response by a leadwork specialist when a theft occurred. It also meant an installation carried out in accordance with the UK Code of Practice (BS6915) and which was sympathetic with the demands of the original roof design.

However this organised system lasted barely more than a year, as the rapidly increasing occurrence of repeat thefts from the same properties led to a dramatic scaling back in the value of the claims cover provided by the insurers.Lead Contractor Association (LCA)

This effectively forced individual Diocese to look at alternative materials, cheaper than lead sheet with little scrap value, therefore less likely to be stolen, a move which is now being reluctantly accepted by English Heritage. Even in those cases when lead sheet is being used as a like for like replacement for stolen metal, the installation work is now given to local general roofing contractors offering cheaper prices than the specialist.

This is the hidden cost of lead theft – effectively a two pronged attack on the specialist craftsman.

A building that has been covered in lead for centuries was probably designed specifically for that metal and that is obviously the best choice for re-covering (English Heritage latest guidance notes state lead should be retained wherever possible).

However, lead sheet is a soft metal, which is conversely both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

In the hands of a skilled and experienced craftsman, lead sheet can be shaped by hand to fit the most complex and ornate details which are found on our historic properties, in order to provide comprehensive and maintenance free weather protection that (untouched) will consistently perform for more than 100 years.

Because it is a soft metal, lead sheet reacts to temperature changes by expanding and contracting. The specialist leadworker knows exactly how to allow for this thermal movement in the sizing and fixing of each individual detail.

However also because it is a soft metal which moves, lead cannot be sealed down on all sides and still perform, so increasing its vulnerability to theft.

Installing lead sheet properly is therefore a specialist craft that requires a degree of skill and knowledge which the general roofing contractor is unlikely to have, regardless of their competence in other materials.

Even when badly fitted though, lead sheet is such a superb roofing material it will take time to show duress and eventually fail, by which time the installer has been paid and has no interest in returning to site to address the problems that their lack of knowledge has created.

When a lead theft occurs there is an increasing temptation to change materials. Even when lead sheet is re-installed, there is the mistaken belief that money can be saved by using a non specialist.

These two consequences of lead theft have resulted in a sharp fall in demand for the services of the specialist leadworker, at a time when the entire UK construction industry continues to suffer from the economic downturn.

When metal prices ease (as they will), when lead thefts decline (as they will), when demand for lead sheet revives (as it undoubtedly will because of its unrivalled long term maintenance free performance), where will the specialists be to make sure it is fitted with the skill, knowledge and careful attention to detail it deserves?

Let’s hope there are still some left, as I for one would hate to see the dome of St Pauls Cathedral covered in asphalt.

For more information on the Lead Contractors Association go to  www.lca.gb.com

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