Vandalism Soars At England’s Historic Sites

From York stone gouged from a 200-year-old bridge to graffiti sprayed on a medieval chapel, there has been a rise in theft and vandalism at the nation’s most cherished historic sites, with the cost of living crisis expected to only worsen the problem.

A major new report on the “scale and extent of heritage and cultural property crime” is to be published on Wednesday by Historic England and the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

It says: “The theft of valuable heritage materials and cultural objects by opportunist offenders and organised crime groups is likely to increase as inflation continues to impact on the price of commodities … Arson, vandalism, graffiti and other forms of antisocial behaviour continue to pose a significant threat.”

Among its recommendations, the report calls for the police “to better record, collate and analyse crimes and incidents relating to the loss and damage”.

It notes there is currently no standard system across all police forces, which limits the understanding of the true scale of heritage crime – let alone how to combat it.

Research carried out over three years from 2020 has revealed that thefts of historic stone from heritage sites, for example, rose 9% in 2022. York stone is a popular building material, partly due to its colour variety and durability, and thieves are stripping slabs of it from the walls and paving of historic sites.

The report notes: “Offenders have been known to be highly organised, disguising themselves by wearing hi-vis jackets to appear as workers. York stone slabs from the grounds of historic properties and church paths are targeted, with gangs often removing them using stolen vehicles and tools. The threat assessment is that the demand for valuable York stone will continue and therefore offending will continue.”

The bridge over the River Aire near Ferrybridge in Leeds. Paving slabs were stolen from the bridge in summer 2019. Photograph: Alun Bull/Historic England Archive

Among recent cases, three thieves removed York stone from eight churches in semi-rural locations, including in Cheshire and Lancashire. They significantly damaged the sites, selling the stones for cash at a reclamation yard. The warden at St Mary’s Church in Astbury, Congleton – whose stone doorway was installed in the 12th century – called the police after discovering that up to 90 York stone slabs had been stolen. CCTV identified the vans, leading to the thieves’ arrest and imprisonment.

In another drastic case, York slabs were stolen from a Grade I-listed bridge that has crossed the River Aire in Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire for about 200 years.

Such losses can cost up to £400 a square metre to replace.

Mark Harrison, the head of heritage crime strategy at Historic England, told the Guardian these crimes were “shocking and cannot be allowed to continue”: “These sites and objects effectively belong to all of us. When these criminals remove or damage something beyond repair, it’s lost.”

He said of the report: “The findings will help us to develop the new tactics and technologies required to be one step ahead of those intent on stealing from our past.”

Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said heritage crime “robs us all of our collective past”, adding: “With most of these crimes involving theft of materials, the cost of replacement vastly outweighs the value of the crime to the criminals. It just seems so incredibly sad and wasteful that things that are precious to us are treated with such disdain by a very small number of people.”

The report identifies a “diverse range of active and emerging threats”, including thefts of historic lead and antisocial behaviour.

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Thefts of metal roofing, notably lead, from historic churches increased by 41% during the Covid lockdown period and decreased by 26% in 2023 on the previous year, possibly due to various convictions proving a deterrent.

In 2023 two thieves were sentenced to a total of 10 years having caused £1.25m worth of damage to 40 churches over seven months.

The churchwarden of St Botolph’s near Sleaford caught them in the act and followed them in his car until the police stopped them. The police later praised him as a “shining example of how the public can help us to do our jobs more effectively”.

Other recent cases include graffiti sprayed on Chester’s historic city walls – whose construction was started by the Romans – and an arson attack that destroyed a Grade II-listed 19th century boatyard in Bristol.

Assistant chief constable Rachel Nolan, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for heritage crime, said: “The report shows really starkly the links between antisocial behaviour and criminality.”

With reference to initiatives such as the Heritage Watch programme, she urged local people to “keep an eye out” and report such crimes.

The research was funded by Historic England on behalf of the Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage (Arch) and conducted by crime analysts at Opal, the national crime intelligence unit for serious organised acquisitive crime.

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