Criminal Damage

Jonathan Taylor


  Sculpture of a stylised male figure in a defensive posture with one hand raised palm outwards and other arm covering lower face  
  Modern art in the grounds of statue in the grounds of Corsham Court with a notice below warning that ‘this statue is alarmed’.  

In 2011 a survey commissioned by English Heritage found that 19 per cent of all listed buildings in England were affected by criminal damage in that year alone (see The ‘heritage crimes’ recorded ranged from graffiti and unauthorised alterations to the theft of metal roof coverings and arson, and in almost half the cases the damage was substantial.

Although the study was limited to England, criminal damage to historic buildings is common throughout the UK. Most at risk are buildings which are known to be unoccupied at night, such as churches and building sites where historic buildings are vacated and scaffolded, and the biggest single threat is metal theft.


Damage to historic buildings is often incidental and a consequence of ignorance. Damage by owners and developers acting without listed building consent is usually made in ignorance of the law or of the importance of having specialist advice – or both. In some cases it is simply that the owner or the building contractor is unaware that every element of a listed building is protected by law, and that it is a criminal offence to carry out most work without listed building consent. In other cases the owner or contractor may consider that the works are relatively minor, and that listed building consent is simply unnecessary red tape which will serve only to delay work.

Most owners and contractors do not set out to intentionally harm the building they are responsible for, but without the scrutiny of the conservation officer mistakes happen.

Ignorance of the consequences also contributes to the harm caused through graffiti and some acts of vandalism, as outlined in Lucy Branch's article on the repair of public monuments and sculpture. Historic buildings and monuments are a finite resource, and over time the cumulative impact of repeated cleaning, repair, damage and loss can be devastating.

High rates of theft, graffiti and arson are often prevalent in specific urban areas, reflecting a wider context of social problems. The visible impact on the environment can discourage investment in the buildings of that area, compounding the problem. Without prompt action by key stakeholders and the local authority, historic buildings and residents can be caught in a vicious cycle of urban decline.

The high price paid for some recycled materials and architectural salvage has encouraged thefts from historic buildings. In recent years lead roofs have been the most common targets for thieves, fuelled by soaring demand for scrap metal, but other items are often stolen too, including decorative features such as fireplaces and sculptures. Even clay tiles have been stripped from the roofs of remote farm buildings, and scaffolds can provide easy access to a wide variety of equipment and materials in unoccupied buildings.

According to the research commissioned by English Heritage, one in seven religious buildings had been affected by lead theft. Not only roofs are affected, but also gutters and downpipes. Whether the material is plain and modern or hundreds of years old and of great architectural and historic interest, it all ends up in the melting pot. When hidden flashings and parapet gutters are stolen, often the first sign of the theft is a leaking roof following a storm, and the consequent water ingress adds to the damage already caused.

All burglaries from historic buildings contribute damage to historic fabric, and in the most appalling cases, burglars have been known to set fire to the building in order to hide evidence.

Fabric and components introduced to replace those which have been damaged or lost are of course new, not historic. Repairs and replacements will help to secure the integrity of the building or monument, and may be beautiful in their own right, but the connection with the past is diminished.


All historic buildings should have a risk assessment carried out to identify which elements are most likely to be the targets of vandalism or theft, when they are most at risk, and how access is likely to be gained. In most cases this is not complex and may be carried out by either the owner or the professional with the advice of the police, but in the more complex and most important cases it may be necessary to bring in a security consultant with specialist expertise. Specific risk assessments should also be carried out when major works are undertaken or the building is to be vacated for a long period.

  A bronze equestrian statue depicting a pith-helmeted cavalry officer looking out from a scarp
  A 1.5m-high bronze statue by Henry A Pegram which was stolen from St Leonard’s church in Semley, Wiltshire in 2006, almost certainly for its scrap value. The statue commemorated a veteran of the Boer War who died in 1915. (Photo: JMC4 – Church Explorer,

Key areas to be considered include:

Perimeter protection – ideally, it should be possible to exclude all vehicular access when necessary, to prevent the removal of large objects: notices at the principal access points can also help to deter intruders by advising them of the deterrence measures in place (such as the security marking systems used), and by asking visitors to report any suspicious activity to the police

Surveillance – intruders and others should feel watched in all areas immediately around the building: consider security lighting (which need not be ugly) and visible indicators of surveillance such as cameras, and lights inside the building

Access to tool stores etc – implements which might be useful to a burglar, arsonist or other miscreant must be well secured

Building envelope protection – all likely access points should be identified, secured and, where possible, alarmed, including doors, windows and their related access routes such as walls, drainpipes and roofs (anti-climb paint may be used above two metres with appropriate warning notices)

Vulnerable item protection – those items which are most likely to be stolen may be photographed, their details documented, and if possible security marked (using SmartWater for example) to aid recovery: individual alarm systems may be needed where the item is external, such as garden monuments and lead roofs.


The increasing range and sophistication of detection and surveillance systems means that most eventualities can be covered extremely effectively without creating false alarms, and the development of wireless technology allows far greater flexibility in design and response. Sensors respond to a wide variety of triggers, including:

  • changes in pressure, for example when an object is lifted or removed
  • vibration, such as that caused by an attempt to break in through a window or door
  • movement within an area, via infra-red or electro-magnetic detectors, or both
  • movement at specific points or of specific objects using laser beams
  • specific sounds, such as breaking glass.

Camera systems can be integrated with sensors so that a camera moves to cover the area in which movement is detected, enabling far more effective remote monitoring.


In addition to those outlined above, there are two specific measures which can be taken to protect a new roof covering when a lead roof has been stripped. One is to use proprietary fixings which secure the new lead sheet to the roof without restricting its movement. These fixings make the burglar’s task of stripping the roof far more difficult, although an attempted theft can still be extremely damaging. The other is to use a substitute material such as terne coated stainless steel which is both more difficult to remove and less valuable as scrap.

  A roofer fits a new square stainless steel roofing 'roll' near a stone parapet  
  A new stainless steel roof covering being laid over a side aisle at St John the Baptist’s, Tisbury, Wiltshire, hidden behind parapets: the new square rolls are an honest interpretation of the original rounded lead rolls  

Two key tenets of conservation are to change as little as possible and to replace like-for-like where parts have to be renewed. However, the high value of some materials such as lead makes them particularly vulnerable to theft, and the remoteness of some buildings such as rural churches means that even if the theft is detected early, thieves can often get away before the police can respond. Where lead has been stripped from roofs which are not visible from public spaces, the use of an easily recognised substitute material offers a pragmatic solution.

The key issue for selecting a replacement roof covering is durability, provided that the appearance does not detract from the architectural significance of the building.

Replacements include GRP (glass-reinforced plastic) and single-ply polymeric roofing membranes which incorporate fine metal powder in the surface layer. These are light, low cost alternatives to traditional leadwork and are unlikely to be mistaken for lead by a thief as they have only a passing resemblance of the real thing. However, all plastics become brittle with age and have a much shorter lifespan than lead. Leaks are also liable to occur as a result of footfall during routine maintenance work, particularly as the polymers become brittle with age.

Metal sheet alternatives include galvanised steel, which is the cheapest, zinc, aluminium and stainless steel. It is stainless steel that offers the best alternative to lead as it has the longest lifespan of all substitutes (50-100 years) and is least prone to failure in the short term due to its strength, stiffness and inherent resistance to corrosion. For roofing it is usually ‘terne coated’ with a tin alloy to dull the surface. Nevertheless, the appearance is not the same as lead, in detail, colour or texture, as illustrated above. It is the thickness and malleability of lead that give the shaped edges and curves their unique surface texture, and the mottled grey colour is quite unique.

Any replacement for lead is a compromise, and like-for-like replacement is always to be preferred. Since the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, dealers in England and Wales must be licensed and may not accept scrap metal from anyone without verifying the person’s full name and address. The Scottish government is also considering extending the licensing of scrap metal dealers and banning cash payments for scrap metal, so that transactions are traceable. These developments, together with the increasing use of security marking systems and other measures to deter lead theft may well result in a significant reduction in the problem.


The Building Conservation Directory, 2014


JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.

Further information





Fire protection systems

Fire resistant coatings & barriers (suppliers)

Fire safety consultants

Lighting consultants

Security services
Site Map