Raids on British history prompt calls for special 'heritage police'

As national treasures are targeted for profit or kicks, custodians fight back

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 06 February 2011 01:00

Heritage chiefs will this week launch a national crackdown on thieves and vandals targeting Britain's national treasures. Growing numbers of attacks are being recorded on heritage sites ranging from the vandalism of prehistoric burial mounds to thefts from churches. Experts warn that it is resulting in the disappearance of priceless historical artefacts as well as multimillion-pound repair bills.

More than 40 organisations in Britain, including the National Trust, National Parks, British Waterways and other heritage bodies, have joined with police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in a bid to curb the mounting threat.

A recruitment drive for special constables around the country to patrol and protect vulnerable heritage sites has been proposed, and a national database of crimes is being developed to identify trends and hotspots. Magistrates will be encouraged to treat heritage crime more seriously.

Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, said: "There is increasing evidence that the threat from heritage crimes is growing, and we need to do something about it. Things like arson, graffiti, and criminal damage scar beautiful buildings and debase the places we live in and enjoy visiting, Theft and illegal metal detecting take away physical evidence valuable to our understanding of the past. On top of that, property owners incur financial loss. If heritage crimes are not tackled better, we all stand to lose something of our history and wellbeing."

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), the CPS, and other groups will sign an agreement next week to give tackling heritage crimes greater priority and improve cooperation between agencies.

There has been legal protection for buildings and sites of historic interest in Britain since 1882. Initially, only the most important, ancient sites were protected, such as Stonehenge and some castles, but now there are 20,000 historic sites given the highest levels of legal protection, and some 500,000 listed buildings across England. However, heritage experts argue that efforts to combat theft and vandalism are being undermined by a lack of good crime data and a tendency for heritage crimes to be under-reported or not taken sufficiently seriously.

Illegal metal detecting, known as "nighthawking", is a major problem. A 2009 survey found that over a third of sites attacked by nighthawkers between 1995 and 2008 are from nationally important sites that are, in theory, legally protected. Despite more than 200 sites being attacked, subsequent investigation resulted in only 26 cases ending in legal action. The penality can be a fine as low as £38.

Churches, many of which are listed buildings, are particularly vulnerable. Scores of church roofs have been targeted by lead thieves, with some churches repeatedly targeted.

In 2003, Ecclesiastical Insurance, which covers the majority of Anglican churches, paid only 10 claims, at a cost of £20,000. Figures have since soared. A spokesman from the company said: "Metal theft is the most serious crime epidemic churches have ever faced. Over the past three years, we've paid over £20m in claims."

Shipwrecks are also at risk. Police are still searching for divers who last September stole a torpedo tube hatch from the wreck of the HMS Holland, a Royal Navy submarine off the Sussex coast. It is believed the theft was ordered by a wealthy collector with an interest in naval history.

The campaign has been developed by Mark Harrison, a chief inspector from Kent Constabulary who has been seconded to English Heritage as a policing adviser: "Heritage crime goes from low-level antisocial behaviour, like off-road biking across Iron Age forts, to significant organised offending." A keen archaeologist, Chief Inspector Harrison added: "We are encouraging local people to become special constables, which means they are warranted and trained, and working closely with Acpo. We've also got lots of stewardship and guardian schemes right across the country where people are being trained to assess sites for vulnerability."

Additional reporting by Michael Turner