Organised crime gangs 'fuelling rise in heritage crimes', police warn

181022 hole in church window
Thefts of lead from churches as well as vandalism are a concern Credit: ITV Anglia

Organised crime gangs are fuelling a steep rise in crimes against key heritage sites, police have warned.

Thefts of lead and metal from churches are among the biggest threats to historic buildings, but raids on archaeological sites are also a big problem.

It's estimated that tens of thousands of listed buildings are affected by heritage crime every year.

Another worrying development is a rise in the number of thefts from archaeological sites.

Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Nolan said her force in Essex was taking heritage crime very seriously Credit: ITV Anglia

Last week four men were arrested on suspicion of criminal damage after being found at an ancient monument in Suffolk with metal detecting equipment.

Another site which has attracted unwanted attention is Caistor Roman Town just outside Norwich. The scheduled, or protected, monument attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year - among them, criminals.

The site has recorded 35 cases of heritage crime in the last 18 months alone including vandalism and criminal damage.

Natalie Butler, from the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, said: "We are hugely affected by heritage crime at this site.

"It is an uphill struggle on a daily basis and our main intention is to try to make the site as nice as possible for everyone, but unfortunately it's a real problem."

The National Rural Crime Network said crime and anti-social behaviour relating to historic buildings and archaeological sites was not a modern phenomenon.

"It has been documented and recorded for hundreds, if not thousands, of years," said a spokesman. "However, what is new is the sheer scale and extent of the criminality."

Heritage crime includes the following:

  • Architectural theft – in particular metal and stone;

  • Criminal damage – vandalism, graffiti and in particular damage caused by fire;

  • Unlawful metal detecting (so-called "nighthawking");

  • Unlawful disturbance and salvage of historic maritime sites;

  • Anti-social behaviour – in particular fly-tipping and off-road driving/riding;

  • Unauthorised works to a listed building or scheduled monument;

  • Illicit trade in cultural objects.

But technology is helping to protect historic sites.

A technique using camera phones developed by a student on a course jointly run by Historic England could help prevent lead being taken from buildings like churches.

Every police force now has a heritage crime liaison officer, and there are also specialist prosecutors.

Rachel Nolan, of Essex Police, said those involved with heritage crime often had a link with other types of criminality.

She said someone stealing lead from a church may use the cash they make to fund other forms of serious and organised crime.

She added: "It's important because it's our heritage and it's important because it's really clearly linked with serious and organised crime."

There is also the potential for tougher sentences for crimes committed on historic sites, all aimed at criminals who target historical assets or sites.