Special Report: Metal theft hits new highs across county

A NEW genre of crime is sweeping the county targeting the vulnerable and causing untold damage.

The phenomenon of metal theft is now British Transport Police’s second priority behind terrorism after levels of the calculated crime shot up in the last five years.

In 2006 there were only 158 instances of metal theft in Cambridgeshire, while in the last year there have been 2,144 thefts worth more than �9 million.

The meteoric rise in value is a product of the rising price of metal brought on by vast industrialisation in China and India. The price of copper is almost four times its value at the start of 2008 on the Commodity Exchange, while lead and copper are worth more than double their 2009 prices.

It is estimated the crime cost the UK �770 million last year.

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Thieves will go to drastic lengths to get hold of any valuable metal, stealing from churches, railway lines, memorials and schools. Manhole covers, copper wiring and even catalytic converters are targeted.

Some county schools have suffered thousands of pounds worth of damage – Histon Nursery School has had more than �16,000 worth of lead stolen from its roof, while Cottenham Village College had almost �5,000 worth of lead and phone lines stolen.

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Building merchants Ridgeons, which has three stores in Cambridge, told Cambridge First that thefts had noticeably risen.

A spokesman said: “Our customers are significantly affected by it, especially on building sites. They will fit a heating system, consisting of steel boilers, radiators and copper tubing, then come back the next day and find it has been ripped out. That is quite common.

“As a result plumbers have been increasingly using plastic piping. It’s much cheaper than copper and has no scrap value so it is not likely to be stolen.”

The spokesman said the rising metal prices has led to “low-level opportunist theft”. Ridgeons has made security paramount.

But for householders it might not be so easy - a normal theft could see a thief earn “a few hundred pounds at scrap”.

It is an easy way to make some quick money as yards pay �4,000 a tonne for copper and �2,000 for a tonne of lead, leading the Government to look at how it can shut down the illegal market.

Earlier this month, Lord Jenkins called for greater police powers in shutting down traders selling stolen metal and a change to an “out of date” Scrap Metal Dealers Act from 1964.

Tony Whitehead, manager of Nationwide Metal Recycling in Swann Road, Cambridge, said they carry out full checks on people who bring them metal.

“It’s not difficult to determine whether metal you are receiving is stolen,” he said.

“We’ve got state of the art CCTV installed which covers all areas of our premises, which is a very good deterrent in my opinion. All in all they would be very silly to try and sell us anything stolen.”

He said Government proposals to stop cash payments on scrap metal would not solve the problem as it would encourage more unlicensed metal dealers.

“We have local police calling from time to time to make us aware of any items which have been stolen,” he added.

In an effort to slow the rate of thefts, the police have launched a rural community action team. Headed up by Detective Inspector Donna Wass, the team will attempt to tackle metal, fuel and machinery theft.

“It is shocking and horrendous people will go to any lengths for a few pounds of metal,” she said.

“Thieves don’t realise how dangerous their activity is. Sometimes they target cables without knowing what it is linked to or how much danger they are putting themselves and other people in.

“Before it was roofs and large amounts of lead and new copper piping. Now all manner of things get stolen – iron gates from farms, for example. It would appear no metal is safe.”

She said tracking down and identifying metal once it has been stolen is a challenge as the thieves mostly come from outside the area.

The lack of any paper trail means often the only chance of arrest is to catch the thieves in the act. Only one arrest has been made for every nine thefts in Cambridgeshire since 2006.

DI Wass added: “It is a very complex issues and most of the time we work with other agencies like the Environment Agency, Customs and Excise, and local authorities.

“Most of our information has come from the public who have been our eyes and ears.”

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