For many the image of an urban district is one of dimly lit street corners, recreational lawbreaking and alcohol-fuelled violence, but, according to new police statistics, this stereotype may be cloaking an overshadowed crime – one which is unique to industrial heartlands like Sheffield.
Look a bit further and you might be surprised to learn that the fastest growing crime in Britain is that of metal theft. Across the country, railings, copper cable and road signs keep disappearing under the cover of darkness.
This year, in fact, it is estimated widespread metal pilfering will cost the industry £770m, and the sharp increase in metal raids is proving to be a constant strain on police authorities, themselves desiccated from cuts to their budgets.
Where years ago, stripping lead off a church roof may have been deemed petty theft, today it is anything but trivial. Moreover, metal-larceny has become an illustrious business, with squads of thieves pocketing from recent price rises in metal.
The problem is so extensive that nothing seems to stand in the way of would-be thieves. Homes have been raided in search of radiators, boilers and bicycles. Congregations are singing without the familiar grandioso, in the absence of stolen church organs. Even bus stops have been dismembered in pursuit of metallic treasure.
And it isn’t just property at risk. Just last month, 50 metres of signalling cable was swiped from railways near South Kirkby, West Yorkshire, causing delays for 35 hours – an act which is being replicated across the country.
So the next time that high-pitched loudspeaker announces your train is delayed, think of metal theft as a likely cause and the profits villains might be making at scrap yards.
And there lies the motive – the quick access to wealth obtainable in metal theft. According to the London Metal Exchange, the price of copper rose by 478% in the last eight years, meaning a tonne of pure copper can be sold for anything up to £6,000.
Likewise, the price of lead and aluminium has also increased considerably, partly due to unstable production and demand by metal-hungry Asian economies.
Most of the stolen metal itself is ultimately scrapped, melted down to its raw material or recycled as material for new products.
Of course, the value of scrap metal is much less, but the numbers are still significant enough to inflame the problem here.
Like most major cities, Sheffield is one of the epicentres of this growing crime, due to its rich industrial heritage. Here, much of the architecture can date back to the Industrial Revolution; roofs are tantalisingly laid with lead and most of the buildings here benefited from the steel boom.
But that isn’t all. The number of reported incidents of metal theft in Sheffield surged when the recession hit in 2007, up from 949 in 2006/07 to 2892 in 2007/08. Of course this could be coincidental, but it may suggest a correlation between levels of unemployment and the rate of thefts.
People with no jobs or reliable income may be choosing to cash in on the city’s metal stocks instead, maybe out of desperation, but chief inspector Iain Chorlton, the lead officer in Sheffield for metal thefts, disagrees.
“There’s a building frustration about the impact it is having on people’s lives. There’s a real significant discussion about [metal theft] on social media sites, particularly on the Sheffield Forum, so it’s a big issue for us.
“We gather intelligence day by day; we are making arrests week by week. We are employing both technical and human resources.”
A Freedom of Information request from Forge Press can chart the recent surge of metal thefts. After the peak in 2007, a gradual decline was experienced across Sheffield, until now.
In the last financial year (2010/11), reported crimes in Sheffield where metal formed all or part of the stolen property increased by 62 per cent to 1633 cases. This roughly translates to 22 incidents a week.
In fact, 20 out of 21 Sheffield police wards registered an increase in the last financial year – this alone demonstrates the widespread problem faced by police authorities.
The worst affected areas in Sheffield are currently Tinsley, Attercliffe, Darnell and Firth Park, all recording above 130 incidents of metal theft-related crime a year.
In an interview with Forge Press, Chorlton dismissed claims that the problem has become a crisis, but understands that victims who are repeatedly targeted might disagree. “If you are personally suffering repeated attacks from metal thefts only then do I think people would call it an epidemic.
“Criminals are quite canny; they are looking at minimising the risk of getting caught but maximising the pay back.”
Nevertheless, he believes South Yorkshire Police are well structured to deal with the crime. “We have got a firm leadership around this. We have targeted operations against individuals and against priority areas.”
One of the biggest issues surrounding the stealing of scrap metal is the knock-on effect to businesses. “It’s not just the loss of the item that’s stolen but it’s the disruption caused by it,” says chief inspector Chorlton. “If a BT cable with 200 cables within that two inch cable is cut, every one of that 200 has to be reconnected.”
With electronic wiring and railway lines involved in many night-time raids, the problem is also very dangerous. But the cash reward appears to be a greater attraction to thieves, outweighing the serious risk of injury and even death.
“I must say the risk that some of these people are taking is astronomical. You have people that go into substations to pinch a specific piece of metal. If they make contact with metal either side they will die instantantly.
“There’s little sense in the minds of criminals about the repercussions of what they do and that’s why they are criminals,” he says.
The most recent tragedy connected with the crime came in July, after a 16-year-old boy was electrocuted during a suspected attempt to steal copper cable from a disused Leeds power station. An act like this only illustrates the gamble people are willing to make.
But there is also a risk to the public too. Obviously, stealing metal drain covers at night presents a safety hazard of falling through. However more seriously, attacks on substations can cause surges in power and with it electrical fires – something Sheffield has suffered recently, with 11 fires a result of one incident alone.
Therefore, chief inspector Chorlton wants the public to be vigilant to the crime, but not to live in constant fear of it.
In order to curb the upward trend in metal crime, the police here are taking radical steps. In fact, this October saw one of the biggest multi-agency operations ever to take place in Sheffield.
The operation, which brought together British Transport Police, the Road Crime Unit and the Environmental Protection Enforcement Team, involved officers searching vehicles travelling to scrap dealers for stolen good. This form of activity has been hailed a success by police.
Following the operation, the Department for Work and Pensions Fraud Investigation Service carried out 46 enquiries – with six of these leading to further investigations.
Speaking about the ongoing investigation, PC Louise Atha from the Broomhill Safer Neighbourhood Team, said: “The outcome of the operation has been very effective as the results show. Members of the public can be reassured that the police do take metal thefts very seriously.”
But in face of such enormous pressures, can operations like these really turn the tide?
Police say the tactics of thieves are getting more diverse, with it being almost impossible for forces to estimate where and when criminals will strike. Some criminals are even changing the types of vans they use to avoid the searches carried out by police.
Nevertheless, businesses and individuals in ownership of scrap metal are being encouraged to take drastic steps to protect it. One of the easiest ways to do so is by making distinctive markings on the metal itself and photographing the property as evidence.
Herein lays a key problem when it comes to conviction, since police need proof that the suspected metal did in fact belong to a certain owner and a certain location, if the investigation is to be successful.
Also, advertising carried out by businesses dealing with metal on the internet can attract criminals – police urge people to be careful about what information they put online. They say Google Maps is being used as a versatile tool in planning out raids and escape routes.
But could changes in law help the police fight the crime? Some argue the current legislation, the Scrap Metal Dealers Act of 1964, has long needed an overhaul.
Members of Energy Networks Association (ENA), a representative body of major electricity and energy suppliers, have called on the government to update the legislation to avoid cash-in-hand dealings at scrap metal yards.
In a statement, David Smith, Chief Executive of ENA, concludes: “The current legislation is from a time of Steptoe & Son. Legislation needs updating with a robust and enforceable registration process, greater police powers to close down illegal scrap metal dealers and a move to a cashless system.”
If you know anyone committing metal crimes, report it to the South Yorkshire Police on 0114 2202020