Not a scrap of mercy for churches

THE scale of the damage to Yorkshire’s churches is hard to bear for those at the sharp end like Canon Kevin Partington of Dewsbury Minster.

He finds himself on the verge of using very un-Christian language when he dwells on the misery caused.

Although he light-heartedly refers to the nine incidents of lead theft in six years as “heists”, his analysis of their impact is serious and shocking.

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“We have been heisted so many times that we hosted a national conference on lead theft 18 months ago. It had become so ludicrous that people were turning up at scrap yards with stolen bus shelters.”

His experience is typical of many Yorkshire churches.

Two years ago thieves stripped the Minster roof of lead, causing £41,000 of damage, only £10,000 of it covered by insurance.

“We had to find £31,000 of our own money which left us in a very difficult position regarding commitments to the diocese of Wakefield. We have had more than nine incidents and we are diagonally opposite the police station.

“Most of the thefts are over the insurance threshold, so it has cost us every time. Our insurance has gone up to £8,500 a year.”

The merciless nature of the thieving has led him to worry about some aspects of the church’s work with the poor.

“We do minister daily to people around the margins such as petty criminals. I am never really sure whether the hand that feeds has been bitten.”

The unremitting nature of the crimes has left paranoia and anger in its wake.

When the rain pours into the Minster through holes in the roof created by the missing lead, Canon Partington thinks of the church volunteers.

“It’s the ultimate insult for the volunteers who give their time so generously.

“We just keep going even though there is water pouring through the refectory. We had candle light when the lights went out. It was an act of defiance.”

Canon Partington says it is time the Government cracked down on scrap dealers who hand over cash without asking questions.

He has backed an online petition calling for a change in the law which would prevent cash payments and seller anonymity.

A similar story can be heard at Haworth, where the parish church and the famous Bronte Parsonage have fallen victim to metal thieves.

The Rev Peter Mayo-Smith has reported three incidents at the parish church in a little over a year.

It has resulted in floods which damaged books, the vestry and some valuables. The vestry roof was fixed but the thieves returned and took away the lead again.

Rev Mayo-Smith said the damage to historic buildings may one day have a knock-on effect on tourism, the life blood of Haworth.

“These people are putting jobs at risk. If heritage is destroyed, tourists won’t come.”

He supports moves to stop scrap dealers doing deals for cash without proper checks.

Many listed buildings have to replace lead with more lead and so the endless cycle of theft goes on but at Haworth they have been allowed – temporarily – to use a substitute material on the church which has no resale value.

While this solution is getting results and will work for now, those at the church know that it may not offer the long-term solution they need.

Elsewhere churches are turning increasingly to hi-tech solutions, including marking lead and valuable stone with SmartWater, a type of ink which has a unique code which can be traced.

The company behind the product says more than 30,000 churches are now using SmartWater.

A company spokesman said the product helped scrap dealers to confidently turn away questionable metal.

Around 1,200 scrap yards now have ultra-violet lights which can detect SmartWater traces.

But thieves continue to operate because the penalties for getting caught are light, according to SmartWater.

“If harsher sentences were handed down it would act as a major deterrent,” said a spokesman. “It is likely to be a community order rather than custody.

“It is very difficult for churches because they cannot put up 15ft fences and barbed wire - they have to be open to all.”