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Historic England

Historic England and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), members of Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage (ARCH), have released research on the scale and extent of heritage and cultural crime in England.

The ‘Heritage and Cultural Property Crime’ research was funded by Historic England and carried out by the National Crime Intelligence Unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime – between February 2020 and February 2023.

The assessment has identified the diverse range of active and emerging threats to the historic environment, including the theft of historic lead and stone, high value burglaries targeting cultural objects, unlawful metal detecting (also known as nighthawking) and the removal of artefacts from the nation’s protected wreck sites.

The research also highlights the problem of antisocial behaviour, particularly arson, vandalism and graffiti, and has led to recommendations for more effective prevention and active enforcement of heritage crime.

Key findings

Theft of historic stone (including York stone) from some of England’s most cherished historic sites is on the rise, particularly walls and paving slabs in Yorkshire and Chesire, as well as granite cattle troughs and fountains from Kent and London. It continues to be at risk from those intent on stealing and trading for financial gain.

Metal theft from historic places of worship increased during the lockdown periods of the Covid-19 pandemic, but effective preventative and enforcement action has since resulted in a steady decrease.

A reduction in unlawful metal detecting (also known as nighthawking) has been achieved with the support of landowners and the metal detecting community, with offenders being identified and brought to justice.

Offences relating to the theft of cultural objects from art galleries, museums and stately homes are on the rise, with artwork and antiques being the most frequently stolen items. It is estimated that over £3.2 billion worth of cultural property was stolen in the 2021/22 period.

The ARCH partnership calls for the development of more accurate police recording processes for offences relating to the loss and damage to heritage sites and cultural property. This will lead to a more detailed understanding of the scale and extent of crime and anti-social behaviour in the historic environment.

Other threats identified in the report:

Cost of living. The theft of valuable heritage materials and cultural objects by opportunist offenders and organised crime groups is likely to increase as inflation continues to impact the price of commodities.

Anti-social behaviour. Arson, vandalism and graffiti continue to pose a significant threat to the owners and managers of England’s nationally important building and archaeological sites. Initiatives such as the ‘Heritage Watch’ programme and the work of National Fire Chiefs’ Council and the National Rural Crime Network are having an impact.

Protected wreck sites. Last autumn, Historic England worked with Marine and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, announcing an innovative forensic marking system to protect some of England’s 57 most historic and archaeologically important wreck sites. These include the Dutch warship Klein Hollandia. This new technology should act as a deterrent to those seeking to steal historic artefacts such as cannon from the seabed.

Cyber enabled crime. The use of the internet has grown, and it is likely that stolen items will continue to be sold online where offenders can (often anonymously) make a profit. It is also likely that a higher number of fakes will enter the market as scams and fraudulent activity online rises.

Historic stone theft – York stone

York stone is a popular material for construction, building and landscaping. The variety of colours and its durability make it desirable. According to Ecclesiastical Insurance, York stone pave slabs taken from the grounds of historic properties such as churches can cost up to £400 per square metre to replace.

The latest research reveals that theft of historic stone from some of our most cherished historic sites rose 9% in 2022. Offenders have been known to be highly organised, disguising themselves by wearing high-vis jackets to appear as workers. York stone slabs from the grounds of historic properties and church paths are targeted, with gangs often removing them using stolen vehicles and tools.

The assessment is that the demand for valuable York stone will continue, and therefore offending will continue while a profit can be gained.

The ARCH partnership is calling for enhanced intelligence gathering and scrutiny of the trade relating to ‘architectural salavage’, which includes York stone.

Metal theft from places of worship

The research reveals that the theft of metal roofing, notably lead, from historic churches increased by 41% during the lockdown periods of the Covid-19 pandemic. These offences are likely to have been committed by opportunistic offenders and organised crime groups.

Between January and November 2023, the theft of lead from church roofs decreased by 26.2% compared with the same period in 2022. Improved security measures may have helped this, as well as introducing Heritage Watch schemes and prosecuting two organised crime groups responsible for stealing high volumes of roofing lead from Dorset to Yorkshire.

The latest figures show that lead prices increased by 8% between January and November 2023 (£1,309 per tonne 2023 average) compared with the same period in 2022. To try to reduce the threat of theft, some listed historic churches are replacing stolen lead with stainless steel after consulting Historic England’s guidance on metal theft from places of worship.

Many offences, including removing small parts of lead flashing at a time, may have gone unnoticed during the summer of 2022. The high price of lead may also have encouraged opportunists.

Nationally, there are 943 places of worship on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register in 2023. There are 53 places of worship on the Register that have threats listed linked to heritage crime as one or more of the following:

Extent of Heritage and Cultural Property Crime in England Revealed | Historic England

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