Photo of scrap lead stacked on a pallette at a recycling plant.
Lead at a recycling plant © Historic England
Lead at a recycling plant © Historic England

It’s Time to Challenge and Ask the Right Questions

By Nicola Guest, Director, Alchemy Metals Ltd

As an ethical scrap metal merchant, Alchemy Metals takes heritage crime exceedingly seriously. We fully appreciate the impact it has on our communities. We have worked tirelessly for a number of years with affected key industries, and were consulted during the development and introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013.

Alchemy have long felt that best practice within the scrap metal sector is the key to combatting heritage crime. The removal of cash payments from the equation has helped enormously to clean up the sector. Whilst cash is still available, it's much less widely used or accepted.

It's important to acknowledge that there's no silver bullet. Without effective licencing, enforcement and greater controls from the owners of metal, the problem could increase whilst commodity prices remain high. Unfortunately, after the introduction of the new legislation, neither enforcement nor licensing plans were fully embedded in business as usual and this has left the owners of metal vulnerable.

It's time for all scrap metal merchants to step up and question the materials that are arriving at their gates; turning a blind eye is not acceptable. Dealers must ask questions: is there a genuine reason for this individual to be selling lead, does the material raise questions regarding its provenance, and would you reasonably expect the seller to be in possession of this type of material?

Even if the seller appears to have a genuine reason for being in possession of the material, don't accept it at face value. Question it. Request a letter of approval from the source of the lead. Hold the materials in quarantine until such confirmation is received. We do this as standard and have never received anything other than support from the sellers of these materials. If the seller questions this process, it's time to call the police.

There is an argument that the scrap metal industry should not have to self-police, but the reality is that sections of them actually need to. In order to remain compliant with the laws of our nation, it's the responsibility of merchants to ensure they're behaving ethically and asking the right questions.

Many are championing the cause as a result of the long-term impact on our heritage and the devastating impact this has had on our communities. However, to effectively tackle the problem, we need to develop an effective coordinated multi-agency approach where the impact of heritage crime is not overlooked.

To build upon the recent successes in tackling metal theft, it's prudent for heritage sites and building managers to liaise with their local scrap metal merchants and build relationships. Merchants should seek advice if a questionable load of lead is being offered to them and they have concerns about its provenance. They have the power to reduce metal theft by simply asking the right questions.

Communities have a role to play in the protection of their heritage. Introducing community teams who can act as the eyes and ears of law enforcement could be a real step forward in protecting our historic sites. Individuals from within these communities could work closely with local law enforcement agencies, Historic England and those responsible for the sites to reduce the threat they currently face. However, the correct level of training from expert practitioners who have the correct level of knowledge is crucial for developing an effective defence to those intending on targeting our national heritage.

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