Image showing police officers and Historic England staff working on a heritage crime initiative.
Police and Historic England staff working on a heritage crime initiative. © Historic England
Police and Historic England staff working on a heritage crime initiative. © Historic England

The Development of the Heritage Crime Programme in England

By Mark Harrison, Head of Heritage Crime and Policing Advice, Historic England

Historic England defines heritage crime as: "Any offence which harms the value of England's heritage assets and their settings to this and future generations."

Harm caused to a heritage asset by crime or anti-social behaviour will often have both direct and indirect impacts. For example, the loss of historic fabric from a listed building through theft or vandalism will not only have a direct impact by damaging the fabric of the building itself. It can also have an indirect impact such as social or economic loss to the amenity of an area.

The problem of crime and anti-social behaviour relating to historic buildings, archaeological sites (both maritime and terrestrial) and cultural property is not a modern phenomenon. Occurrences have been documented and recorded for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

From the looting of Egyptian tombs in antiquity, to contemporary issues leading to the loss and destruction of historic sites and buildings. There's metal theft, unauthorised development, unlawful salvage and the impact of armed conflict and terrorism. What's new is the sheer scale and extent of the criminality.

In 2010, Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime stated that: "Where ancient artefacts are stolen and the sites in which they were hidden are destroyed through looting, archaeologists are unable to gather knowledge about the past."[1]

The conference further identified the trafficking in cultural property as one of the "new and emerging crimes of concern. The emergence of these new crime types gives rise to the need for law enforcement response to adapt its efforts and capacities accordingly."[2]

For more than 100 years, legislators have recognised the need to protect England's irreplaceable stock of historic sites and buildings. There's been a succession of statutory measures, with more recently shipwrecks, military remains and cultural objects receiving protection. This has included the introduction of specific offences to counter the threats of theft, damage and unauthorised works or alteration.

The challenge set for the authorities charged with the protection of the nation's heritage has always been very clear: to ensure that the historic and cultural environment is passed to the next generation in as good a condition as we found it, or even in a better condition. This also provides a definition of preservation and sustainability. But in reality, the division of responsibility between heritage protection bodies, local planning authorities and law enforcement agencies was not clearly described or coordinated.

The situation was exacerbated by the perceived rarity of incidents and the lack of knowledge and understanding relating to the nature of the loss and limited expertise within the law enforcement and heritage sectors. This meant that the task was not being fulfilled to best effect.

In 2011, Historic England (formerly English Heritage) in collaboration with the National Police Chiefs' Council (formerly the Association of Chief Police Officers) and the Crown Prosecution Service recognised the need for a more structured and sustainable approach to the prevention and investigation of crime and anti-social behaviour within the historic environment of England.

This was a significant development and highlighted the level of concern and commitment across the heritage and law enforcement sectors to address the issues. The partnership is now known as the National Heritage and Cultural Property Crime Working Group and is chaired by the National Police Lead for Heritage and Cultural Property Crime.

In 2012, Historic England (then known as English Heritage) funded research into the extent of heritage crime. It indicated that in the previous 12 months, "18.7% of all listed buildings were physically affected by criminal activity". The finding equates to over 70,000 listed buildings! For almost 30,000 listed buildings, the impact was classified as 'substantial'.

More generally, around 20% of listed buildings are harmed by crime every year. This figure is almost double for listed places of worship. The biggest single threat identified by the research was metal theft, in particular from church buildings with over 14% of buildings being affected.

Since 2012, the working group has made significant progress and stimulated an awareness of the existence of and the significance of protected heritage assets at a national, regional and local level. The partnership has provided law enforcement agencies, heritage practitioners and local communities with the advice, training and expertise they need to protect the historic environment from the impact of crime and anti-social behaviour.

A majority of police services have identified officers to act as single points of contact for matters relating to heritage and cultural property crime. The function is often aligned to the investigation of offences within the rural and natural environment. This network of specialist officers, police staff and support volunteers is helping to provide an effective and efficient response to heritage crime and has been supported by the publication of the Heritage Crime: A Guide for Law Enforcement Officers. In January 2018, Historic England commissioned the first heritage crime textbook which is anticipated to be published in the summer of 2019.

In parallel, the Crown Prosecution Service has identified specialist prosecutors to act as Heritage and Wildlife Crime Coordinators [3]. An increasing number of community safety partnerships, Local and National Park Authorities have added their signatures to the associated Memorandum of Understanding, and many others have highlighted their intention to engage in the process.

Our knowledge and understanding of the threats posed to heritage sites, buildings and cultural property continues to improve through the provision of a bi-annual strategic threat assessment. The current assessment, published in July 2017 identifies seven types of crime and anti-social behaviour as the most prevalent:

  • Architectural theft - in particular the theft of metal and stone
  • Criminal damage - vandalism, graffiti and in particular damage caused by fire
  • Unlawful metal detecting - sometimes referred to as 'nighthawking'
  • Unlawful disturbance and salvage of historic maritime sites
  • Anti-social behaviour - in particular fly-tipping and off-road driving/riding
  • Unauthorised works to a listed building or scheduled monument
  • Illicit trade in cultural objects

As a result of the assessment's findings the working group has launched a series of national campaigns designed to target specific heritage crime threats. These include:

  • Operation Chronos - Unlawful metal detecting, sometimes referred to as 'nighthawking'
  • Operation Crucible - Theft of metal from protected historic sites and buildings and,
  • Operation Birdie - Unlawful interference and salvage from historic wreck sites.

Across the country local history and archaeological societies, sub-aqua and metal detecting clubs and Neighbourhood Watch groups (including Heritage Watch) have been encouraged to be more aware and vigilant to the threat of heritage crime. Within their local areas they report any suspicious activities to the police. Heritage Watch Schemes are now active in Kent, City of York, Hertfordshire, Essex and Cheshire.

Our understanding of the extent and scale of the problem will continue to develop. As the intelligence gathering and assessment process matures and adopts the full range of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies high-risk locations will be identified.

An increased level of understanding will allow the implementation of the appropriate preventative and enforcement activities to reduce heritage and cultural property crime. Where offences do occur, it will allow identification of those responsible and to bring them to justice.

In February 2016, the Sentencing Council published new sentencing guidelines for theft offences which now include the theft, handling and disposal of stolen heritage assets. Courts will now be able to take account of the special nature of heritage and cultural property when sentencing offenders.

The value of our built and cultural heritage cannot be judged in pounds and pence alone. The impact of theft from historic buildings and archaeological sites, including those situated in the maritime environment, has far-reaching consequences over and above the financial cost of what has been stolen.

When thieves steal metal from a church roof or artefacts from a historic wreck or archaeological deposit, they are stealing from all of us and damaging something which is often irreplaceable. The new guidelines will help the courts identify all the relevant factors to include and consider when making their sentencing decisions in relation to heritage and cultural property crime.

Significant progress has been made to enhance the response to the problem of heritage crime in England. Similar programmes have been developed to tackle the issue in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is more that can be done and with the help of the community, volunteers and dedicated professionals we can ensure that our past is preserved and conserved for future generations.


1Trafficking in Cultural Property, UNODC, accessed 27 February 2018

2. Emerging Crimes, UNODC, accessed 27 February 2018

3. 'Eye Witness' Issue 12, January 2011

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