Stone theft in my beautiful part of West Yorkshire has reached epidemic proportions. For the past two years I have been receiving weekly reports from West Yorkshire Police of multiple stone thefts.
Homes, schools, farms and places of worship have been victims of thieves snatching building materials. Roof tiles, topping stones on dry stone walls, York stone path slabs and many other types of stone are being systematically stolen. Some are clearly being sold on. Others are being used by rogue builders so that they do not have the expense of sourcing their own materials.
Scapegoat Hill Junior and Infant School was targeted by stone thieves twice in less than a fortnight. Slates were stolen from the school roof overnight. They were replaced at great expense, but just a couple of days after the scaffolding had come down they were stolen again.
Places of worship have been repeatedly targeted. And a constituent from South Crosland has told me how distressing it was when just two weeks ago vehicles pulled up in the middle of the night at their farm and thieves took away the topping stones of their boundary walls. Those walls have marked the boundary of their farm for hundreds of years. The toppings are very old black-faced local sandstone and hard to replace.
Meanwhile, just up the road, Leeds City Council has replaced £50,000-worth of York stone stolen from pavements across the city in the past year – an increase of more than 50 per cent on the previous 12 months.That comes at a time when local council budgets are tight. It is costing tens of thousands of pounds, and as I have said, these are far from victimless crimes.
I am proud that the previous coalition Government acted very quickly to tackle metal theft. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which requires dealers to hold a licence to trade and gave councils powers to deal with rogue businesses, slashed the number of metal thefts. The targeted operations against unscrupulous scrap metal dealers, in conjunction with police and local agencies, resulted in more than 1,000 arrests for theft and related offences, and police seized more than 600 vehicles involved in that kind of criminality.
I would like to praise West Yorkshire Police for their action so far in tackling the epidemic of stone thefts. They have launched a campaign using SmartWater – a uniquely-coded forensic liquid that shows up under an ultraviolet lamp. It means that stone merchants or police can easily identify whether stone is stolen, and if so, it can be traced back to its original location.
Many of these thefts take place in broad daylight with thieves posing as workmen – sometimes they are even brazen enough to wear DayGlo jackets – so vigilance is definitely required.
In the last week, West Yorkshire Police held a publicity campaign with world-famous landscape artist Ashley Jackson highlighting that the theft of stone from our beautiful stone walls causes great damage to our countryside and our heritage.
Their leaflet says: “Yorkshire Stone. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Our landscape is not replaceable so let’s stop the thieves from taking it. Stone theft and the removal of old stone tiles from roofs might look innocent activity. Examples of where this could be happening include a rural location, outside a church, from someone’s garden or in the middle of a town or village. You have no way of knowing if it is a job of work or a theft.”
The police advise: “See it, note it, let’s hang on to our Yorkshire.”
That is the scale of the problem. I appreciate that this is not as straightforward as tackling metal theft, as the materials are not always sold on immediately for cash. However, I will finish with three specific policy requests.
First, I would like there to be a dedicated stone theft task force, like the one that was set up to tackle metal theft in 2011.
Secondly, I would like there to be a national and regional awareness campaign so that householders and businesses that deal with stone, tiles and paving slabs check where they are from, and so that the public can challenge those who pose as workmen in DayGlo jackets, whether they are ripping up pavements or taking off roof tiles.
Finally, I would like to see an increase in the fines handed out to those convicted and the introduction of exemplary punishments to deter these criminals.
Our heritage is being stolen, brick by brick. Let us tackle the scourge of stone theft, as we did metal theft.
Jason McCartney is the Tory MP for Colne Valley who spoke in a Commons debate on stone theft. This is an edited version.