About 32,000 homes in the Yorkshire region had their power supply interrupted as a result of cable thefts last year, new figures have revealed.
Across the region dozens of kilometres of overhead lines and cabling from electricity substations were attacked in almost 400 incidents, many by organised gangs looking to profit from the trade in illicit copper.
West Yorkshire was named by distributor Northern Powergrid as one of the worst areas in the north of England, with 166 incidents, 57 of which were in Leeds alone.
The company said it was looking to bolster security at substations and use less valuable materials in an attempt to clamp down on the problem.
Nigel Walker, who is in charge of dealing with metal theft for Northern Powergrid, said there was evidence crimes were being co-ordinated by organised gangs – and West Yorkshire was in a particularly vulnerable position because of its location.
He said: “It is a large conurbation and the region has a very good motorway network. It’s a central point for criminals to pass through and pinch cable then transport it outside of the region.
“As a region, Yorkshire has a history of metal smelting and steel production and that has perhaps contributed to the high number of incidents of metal theft.
“There is evidence metal is being put into containers and shipped out through the ports, rather than being sold through scrap yards as it has been in the past.”
Northern Powergrid supplies electricity to 3.9 million homes across the North East, Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire.
Last year it suffered a total of 617 cable thefts, affecting 49,000 homes.
In December dozens of homes in Eggborough, near Selby, were left in the dark when around 300 metres of 440 volt overhead power cables were stolen.
In 2011 cable thieves caused an explosion which wrecked a row of houses in Castleford.
As well as the danger of electrocution faced by those who attack power lines, thefts can pose a safety risk to householders whose power supplies fluctuate.
Road users and pedestrians are also left in danger when damaged power lines are abandoned.
Mr Walker said: “Over the past month we have had a number of cases where wires have been left across bridleways and footpaths. Fortune has played a part in that no-one has been injured, but we very much rely on the public to be our eyes and ears.”
Despite the high number of incidents in West Yorkshire, the company has seen a reduction in overall crime numbers, partly as a result of greater regulation of scrap metal dealers who in the past have been used to dispose of stolen metal.
However, Mr Walker said the impact of thefts had grown because metal was being stolen in larger quantities by organised groups.
“As an organisation we are seeing a reduction in incidents, mainly because of police force engagement, government funding and proactive work to make assets stronger and more secure,” he said.
“We might be having fewer events, but a greater amount of metal is being stolen and more customers are being affected.
“I think the attitude of thieves is if they are going to risk their lives, they might as well make it worth it.”
The company is increasing security at substations and has begun to use aluminium rather than copper for cables where possible in a bid to deter thieves.
It has also announced that it is renewing a partnership, launched in 2011, with the charity Crimestoppers to raise awareness of the risk to public safety and the disruption caused to power supplies by deliberate criminal damage.
The company’s field operations director Nick Gill said: “Metal thieves do not care about the lives of the innocent people they put at risk or the disruption they cause when they interfere with power supplies.
“Together with Crimestoppers, we urge the public to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity they see around the electricity network.”