Thieves get a pointer from the markets

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AN INTERNATIONAL agreement to cut aluminium production to drive up the price of the metal has inadvertently resulted in a lucrative new crime wave - the theft of road signs for recyclable scrap.

In the past few weeks nearly 200 signs - neighbourhood watch signs, street signs, village name signs, crossroad signs, chevron hazard warning signs and road direction signs - have been stolen from the roadsides of West Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire.

Police fear it is only a matter of time before motorists are killed or injured negotiating sharp bends or hazardous conditions on roads where the signs have been stolen.

Since December last year the price of 99.7 per cent pure aluminium on the London Metal Exchange has risen from dollars 1,050 a ton to dollars 1,580 a ton - from pounds 700 to pounds 1,000, allowing for exchange rates.

This followed an international agreement in March to cut production to stop the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) flooding the world market with cheap aluminium. The current high price of new metal has pushed up the price of ingotted scrap to pounds 250 a ton.

Gangs of thieves have been cutting down signs on the A24 south coast to Surrey road, the A29 Bognor Regis to London road and the A272 Winchester to East Sussex road. West Sussex has lost about 150 signs worth pounds 25,000, Surrey 35 signs worth pounds 3,500 and Hampshire more than 10 signs. All three councils are investigating ways of making replacement signs more secure, or less valuable, to thieves.

West Sussex is now using tamper proof nuts to fix the signs to posts and has asked local firms to advise on suitable adhesives; Surrey is considering introducing polyester composite signs - plastic being liable to shatter and steel being difficult to maintain - and Hampshire has been introducing plastic signs.

The thieves are thought to be stripping the paint off the signs, cutting them into small pieces and then melting them down into ingots for resale. The scrap is worth about pounds 5.50 a kilo or an average of pounds 85 a clean sign. Some of the larger road direction signs measure 3 metres by 4.

Roger England, the highway engineer for West Sussex, said the number of missing signs had grown to such an extent that the highways department had became 'very concerned about the safety of the public'.

Dr David Harris, secretary general of the Aluminium Federation, described the crime as 'absolutely appalling', but said it was not new. There had been spates of sign thefts in 1989 when aluminium was worth about dollars 2,500 ( pounds 1,560) a ton, and one night in Hull thieves made off with an entire canal footbridge.