With metal theft from churches at crisis point, a national campaign is being launched to save thousands from further damage by criminals.
As part of the Hands Off Our Church Roofs campaign, Ecclesiastical aims to see sophisticated electronic alarm systems installed on the roofs of Anglican churches across the country.
An average of seven churches a day are being targeted for the lead in their roofs by criminals who see them as easy pickings.
Ecclesiastical, which insures 96% of the country's Anglican churches, is investing £500,000 of its own money to install roof alarms free of charge on some of the most badly affected churches.
The campaign is being launched today in St Peter's Church, Blackley, in Manchester, one of the worst hit parts of the country.
Ecclesiastical said that 2011 had been the worst year on record for church metal theft claims after it received more than 2,600 metal theft claims from churches by the end of the year.
John Coates, Ecclesiastical‟s director of church insurance said: “The attack on Britain's churches has reached catastrophic proportions and we simply have to do something about it."
The alarms, the majority of which will be fitted in England, use concealed sensors on the church's roof to detect the presence of a metal thief.
Upon activation, the alarms emit powerful blue flashing lights to draw attention to the church while speakers broadcast a loud, recorded message warning the criminal that an alarm has been activated.
An alarm signal will be sent to a remote monitoring unit and will trigger security personnel to attend the scene.
The systems were piloted successfully by Ecclesiastical in over 100 churches. It found that where roof alarms were fitted, metal thefts were reduced significantly or stopped completely.
Although only the worst hit churches will receive the systems for free, Ecclesiastical is appealing to surrounding churches to help make it harder for thieves to target their areas by purchasing their own alarm systems.
"As times are hard, we recognise that in some cases this is going to require fundraising by the church and its local community," Mr Coates said.
He warned that metal theft was jeopardising Britain's architectural heritage and pushing churches that are unable to meet the cost of repairs to the brink of closure.
“Britain’s churches are woven into the fabric of our national life and our heritage. For millions of us, some of the most important milestones of our lives are played out in church – baptisms, weddings, funerals. Everyone can appreciate the beauty of their architecture and the good will they radiate into the communities around them. Now their roofs are being casually ripped away by criminals looking for quick cash – criminals who have complete disregard for the damage they inflict."
"For some churches, it's a case of picking up the pieces and trying to move on; for others, a major theft of roof lead can be a death blow that forces closure. Unless this epidemic of crime is stopped, the place of churches in our society will never be the same again.”
Ecclesiastical is helping churches to fight metal theft by applying SmartWater forensic marker liquid to metal for free so that it can be traced in the event of being stolen. It is also lobbying Government to tighten the laws relating to the sale of scrap metal.
With other aspects of British life such as transport and communications being badly affected by metal theft, the Hands Off Our Church Roofs campaign has received the support of the Church of England Church Buildings Council, the Association of Chief Police Officers and Minister of State for Crime Prevention and Anti-Social Behaviour Reduction, Lord Henley.
Anne Sloman, Chair of the Church of England Church Buildings Council, said: “Although we are campaigning vigorously for legislation to regulate scrap yards, we also have a responsibility to do everything we can to help ourselves. We urge parishes to look carefully at the benefits of roof alarms which do offer extra protection.”
The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, said: “The Church of England is the custodian of 45% of all Grade 1 listed buildings and since the metal vandals have descended in such hordes over recent years our duty of maintenance has become nearly impossible. New Government legislation will undoubtedly help, but we all need to remain vigilant and try to get a step ahead of these well-organised raiders. I am grateful to Ecclesiastical Insurance for taking an initiative in these matters.”
Richard Crompton, Association of Chief Police Officers, said that the theft of lead from churches and other facilities had become a "major issue" in communities across the country.
He encouraged churches to instal the new alarm systems.
"The installation of roof alarms is a proven way of deterring thieves and represents another step forward in the fight against heritage crime," he said.
MPs have also thrown their weight behind the campaign. Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, has been campaigning for tougher sentences for metal thieves.
He said the theft of metal from places of worship was a "crime against society" that "should be dealt with and punished accordingly".
John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington , was a sponsor of the Early Day Motion Theft of metals from war memorials and places of worship.
He said metal theft from churches had become a "nightmare problem" in Hayes and a "cause of great concern" in the community.
A survey conducted by Ecclesiastical last December found widespread condemnation of metal theft from churches.
Nearly half the population (49%) said they were "appalled that someone can steal lead from a church", while 37% said they were "saddened" by the crime.
Actress and model Liz Hurley said: “Beautiful old churches are at the heart of so many of our communities and I find it truly shocking that anyone would steal lead from a church roof. I heartily endorse the campaign to have alarms fitted.”