Church leaders are calling on residents across North Yorkshire to lobby Government about the current lead theft “epidemic” across the county, with its historic places of worship at risk of being stripped bare.
The stark warning has been delivered by the Registrar to the Diocese of York, Lionel Lennox, which has 607 churches between Middlesbrough and Hull.
Mr Lennox, a specialist ecclesiastical lawyer at York-based solicitors, Denison Till, says that in the last four years he has had to issue a record number of emergency licences to parishes targeted by thieves so they can carry out urgent repairs to protect the fabric of their buildings. He says the problem has now reached crisis point.
Recently, the Diocese lost nine church roofs in 10 days, while some churches have now been targeted as many as eight times in recent years, raising fears that insurers will soon start to refuse paying out.
“The Diocese of York has churches dating back to the 12th century as well as wonderful 19th and 20th century buildings and the thefts seem to affect all types of buildings and locations,” Mr Lennox said.
“Whether or not people are regular churchgoers, such buildings are a vital part of our community and architectural heritage and we’re seeking wider public support in preventing these thefts, whether through local vigilance such as including them in neighbourhood watch schemes, where numbers of vehicles parked near churches are jotted down, or actively supporting national measures which the church is calling for.”
In recent months, there have been two thefts of roof lead from St Olave’s Church, Marygate, York, which has been the site of a church since 1055.
The total damage from the first theft, in July, is estimated to cost about £50,000 to repair as the rain water came down the walls, bringing gravel and various debris from the unprotected roof. The church organ, described as one of the finest in the area and built by JH Walker who designed the organ in York Minster, suffered £15,000 damage.
Rev Jane Natrass, who has been at St Olave’s for a year, said: “Some of the congregation are very upset about the amount of money required for the repairs, as the thieves are likely to have got only a few hundred pounds for the lead they stole.”
All Saints Church in the village of Rufforth, near York, has now been targeted three times in the past two-and-a-half years.
Churchwarden Christine Ross, said: “The problem was that it seemed as though as soon as we replaced the stolen lead, the thieves just returned and took it again.
“There were 16 lead panels on the church roof and the last time they damaged 12 of them by just ripping off as much as they could.
“We have now replaced all 16 lead panels with terne-coated stainless steel which looks like lead but is less valuable and we hope that this will deter them. Half the cost came from insurance and the rest from our own reserves.
“The congregation is upset that anyone would wish to target a building they love so dearly for this sort of theft.”
The Yorkshire Post revealed earlier this year that insurance claims totalling £6m have been submitted in the past few years, with the scale of the problem so widespread that church leaders fear for the future of some places of worship.
The national body, The Church Buildings Council, is currently lobbying Parliament to introduce legislation forcing scrap metal merchants to audit and account in writing for all metals they buy so that it can be checked to have come from a verifiable source.
An online petition campaigning for an amendment to the Scrap Metal Merchants Act 1964 to prohibit cash transactions for the payment of scrap metal, has attracted around 41,000 signatures.
The petition is available at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/406%20.