Technology

Metal substitutes are being tested to deter thieves

Mountain of metal awaits export abroad from Liverpool
Image caption Strong overseas demand for scrap metal has boosted commodity prices

The high prices being paid for scrap metal mean that theft is booming - street signs, manhole covers and even works of art.

The Association of Chief Police Officers estimates that it is costing £770m a year.

About 15,000 tonnes of metal are stolen annually - as much as half of this from scrap metal dealers. The stakes are high: 10 people were killed in metal theft incidents in the past year.

So local authorities, building contractors and even religious institutions are looking for alternative materials which do not have a high scrap value.

One of the biggest problems in this field is the theft of metal cables, particularly from railway companies, because copper has a high scrap value.

Even when a solution exists it is not always practical. For instance a traditional cable can be replaced with aluminium coated in copper.

However, this is not used widely at the moment partly because it still looks like copper, so even if it has a lower scrap value it may not prevent the theft.

Image caption Barbara Hepworth's Two Forms bronze sculpture was stolen from a London park in December

Roof replacements

One measure finding more success is the replacement of metal street signs with plastic ones. Many local authorities have ordered the move since the substitutes look similar and wear well.

Others too are looking at ways of using different materials. The aim is to prevent metal theft without raising costs, while ensuring there is minimal visual impact on the surroundings.

Churches are closely following developments. Their roofs are a tempting prospect for would-be thieves.

Last year was the worst ever for metal theft from churches, with more than 2,000 claims. With thefts continuing to rise, churches are worried they will have to pay for expensive repairs out of their own pockets.

All Saints Church in Paston, Peterborough, has been targeted repeatedly. The historic 13th Century church first had the lead stolen from its chancel roof about five years ago.

The main insurer for the Church of England, Ecclesiastical, has a cap of £5,000 as the maximum churches can claim on their insurance for metal theft in any one year.

At All Saints the theft from the chancel roof - about a quarter of the lead from the church roof - cost the church nearly £25,000.

Image caption All Saints Church in Paston aims to replace the lead on its roof after thefts

The Reverend Gillian Jessop has been looking at alternatives to lead, and is currently seeking permission to replace the roof with turncoated stainless steel, which is stainless steel with a coating which makes it look like lead.

"Our problem is that we're a Grade I listed building, so special rules apply to what we can do to change the appearance of a building like that," she said.

The comparatively high prices for scrap metal may make the thefts look like any easy way to make large sums of money, but the cost to the victims is often hugely out of proportion to the financial gain for the criminals.

A thief will probably get about £4 for a manhole cover, which will cost the local council about £400 to replace - and then there's the manpower, the road closures and the danger to the public.

Health risks

The Local Government Association is looking into the problem for local authorities. It is carrying out a survey to find out the impact of metal theft on their budgets, what changes they would like to legislation and whether councils are looking into alternative materials.

One local authority that is taking action is Oxfordshire County Council. It is trialling a fibreglass manhole cover to see if it will stand up to the rigours of traffic and provide an alternative to metal.

The non-metal cover looks very similar to the real thing from a distance, but close up you can tell that it is different and so not worth stealing, and it is lighter weight, too.

There may be knock-on benefits from installing manhole covers made from non-metal alternatives. Some composite materials actually last longer than metal, which gets worn smooth, making it dangerous for people riding over metal covers on bikes or motorcycles.

A fibreglass gully cover is also being trialled by Cambridge Water, who are taking metal theft very seriously.

In the past 18 months the company has lost more than 30 iron covers from its operational sites as a result of theft, which they say have caused a number of health and safety and cost concerns.

They are trialling "worthless" manhole covers, too, made of metal with a low scrap value.

A statement from the company said: "All over the UK councils, businesses and utilities have been targeted by thieves who are thoughtlessly removing manhole covers to cash in on their scrap metal value.

"This can be particularly dangerous for unsuspecting motorists or pedestrians, and there have been several incidents where people have been hospitalised."

Fibreglass profits

While some organisations are looking at alternatives to metal, many companies have been using other materials for year, because of a variety of benefits.

The Grating Company, based in Suffolk, stocks fibreglass grating and also makes handrails, walkways and gully covers, among other items.

Image caption Fibreglass can be used as a metal substitute

It uses the material because it is hard-wearing and versatile, but has seen an increased demand since the increase in metal theft, particularly to sewage works, electricity companies and railways - or wherever there are large quantities of steel unprotected for long periods.

One of the advantages of the products is that they come in a wide variety of bright colours, so you can see at a glance that they're not made of metal, meaning that a would-be thief would not even bother to stop his car if he drove by an easily stolen item.

The company's Andrew Heseltine says it has taken on more staff in the past couple of years. Although the increase in metal thefts is regrettable, he says companies like his are benefiting from it.

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