Theft from Places of Worship

Historic England fully appreciates the frustration and damage caused by crimes affecting historic places of worship, particularly metal theft.

When lead or copper roof coverings have been stolen, we understand it may be too risky to replace with the same materials. We have found that the most appropriate and long-lasting alternative is terne-coated stainless steel; although for some buildings zinc, slates or tiles may be options.  A good specification and experienced contractors are key to ensuring the performance of the replacement roof covering. We have commissioned technical guidance about using terne-coated stainless steel for church roofs to address commonly raised questions.

Metal theft

Metal theft is a significant part of the wider problem of heritage crime. At a time of high global demand for raw materials many historic places of worship are attacked by thieves in search of metals including lead, copper and zinc. 

Roofs are often the target but thieves also take gutters, downpipes and lightning conductors, as well as stone walling and paving. Such crimes leave buildings vulnerable to further damage through repeat thefts and weather. We are actively in touch with Police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service and local authorities to share information and identify, arrest and punish perpetrators.

Metal theft: prevention, response and recovery

Our advice note sets out our approach to metal theft and provides detailed information on: preventing theft; dealing with the immediate impact and re-covering the roof following theft; helping the police to get a conviction.

The document contains the following tools, which you can also download as separate PDFs:

Further information on all topics covered on this page can be found in the document.

We have commissioned a technical guidance note about using terne-coated stainless steel for church roofs to address commonly raised questions.

Our approach to replacement following metal theft

We appreciate that sometimes people must consider a change of material following a theft in order to ensure the long term future of the building. Like-for-like replacement following theft is highly desirable but may not always be prudent. Each case will be judged on its own merits. 

We will not support the pre-emptive removal of lead from roofs not affected by theft unless there are exceptional circumstances.

We strongly encourage the use of appropriate and long-lasting materials for historic buildings, particularly on roofs. Changing the material of a building’s roof could detract enormously from the building’s appearance and significance and mean that it performs less well technically.

We expect the use of the most appropriate alternatives. These include long-term durable metals with known standards of performance, for example terne-coated stainless steel or zinc. Slates or tiles could be an alternative where these are historically appropriate and the roof is sufficiently steep. Any harm done to the significance of the historic building needs to be outweighed by the benefits, including ensuring wind and weather-tightness.

Further information on the process of replacement and appropriate materials can be found in the Metal theft: prevention, response and recovery document.

When considering repairs to damage or replacement following theft, make sure you have the relevant permissions from the local authority or your denominational body. Find out more about permissions and places of worship.

Preventing metal theft

There is no single answer to the problem of metal theft. You should tailor prevention and security measures to your building. Your insurer may also have some specific requirements regarding security measures.

You may wish to consider some of the following actions – these may require permission:

  • Carrying out a risk assessment
  • Preparing a statement of significance
  • Involving the community by building good relationships with neighbours and local police
  • Taking basic protective measures such as regularly checking roofs and drainage goods, making access to the roof difficult and restricting vehicle access to the site
  • Marking your metal, either with forensic marking or mechanical stamping
  • Installing alarms or cameras
  • Taking extra precautions when contractors are on site

Dealing with metal theft

Download our checklist to help you deal with metal theft. Any proposal to remove metal must be discussed with the appropriate authorities, including Historic England in the case of Grade I or II* buildings.

Immediately after a theft, once emergency cover is in place, you should secure all remaining metal. Any metal still on the roof should be kept.

Actions to take include:

  • Taking some quick security measures in case the thieves return for any remaining metal.
  • Notifying your architect or surveyor so they can inspect the building, help to arrange emergency protection and plan how to repair the damage
  • If lead has been stolen or damaged, the contractors you employ to repair or replace it need specialist training. The Lead Contractors Association (LCA) guarantees the work of some contractors.
  • Informing key contacts. Notify your insurance company and also neighbouring congregations, as they are likely to be at heightened risk. Church of England congregations should also notify their Archdeacon and Diocesan Advisory Committee Secretary so they can offer immediate advice and support. Baptist Union, Methodist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed Church congregations should notify their respective Advisory Committees
  • Notifying the Church Crime Alert: the Church Buildings Council has published guidance intended to protect church treasures and set up Crime Alert. Contact 020 7898 1860 or email [email protected]. Reporting theft of metal or other artefacts will ensure an immediate alert to auction houses, museums and crime prevention agencies.

Reporting metal theft

If you discover that metal has been stolen contact the police immediately. If you see thieves in action do not confront them but call 999. If you find that a theft has already happened, report it on 101.

When you report the crime make sure the call-handler knows:

  • That it is an attack on an historic, listed, protected, community building
  • That the building is managed and maintained by volunteers
  • That you must have a crime number for insurance purposes.

Remember also to contact someone with responsibility for the building. It is possible that you are the first person to report the crime and if further damage is to be avoided it is imperative that emergency protection is provided.

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