A photograph of a police SUV parked in a field. A sign in the foreground reads "Private Road / No entry"
Essex Police Heritage Crime Officers on patrol. © Essex Police.
Essex Police Heritage Crime Officers on patrol. © Essex Police.

Extent of Heritage and Cultural Property Crime in England Revealed

Historic England and National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), members of ARCH (Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage), have today released research findings on the scale and extent of heritage and cultural property crime in England.

The 'Heritage and Cultural Property Crime' research was funded by Historic England and carried out by crime analysts at Opal (the National Crime Intelligence Unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime) between February 2020 and February 2023.

The assessment has identified the diverse range of active and emerging threats to the historic environment, including the theft of historic lead and stone, high value burglaries targeting cultural objects, unlawful metal detecting (also known as nighthawking) and the removal of artefacts from the nation’s protected wreck sites.

The research also highlights the problem of antisocial behaviour, particularly arson, vandalism and graffiti, and has led to recommendations for more effective prevention and active enforcement of heritage crime.

Key findings of the research

Other threats identified in the report include:

  • Cost of living crisis. 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 the price of commodities
  • Anti-social behaviour. Arson, vandalism and graffiti continue to pose a significant threat to the owners and managers of England’s nationally important historic buildings and archaeological sites. Initiatives such as the ‘Heritage Watch’ programme and the work of the National Fire Chiefs’ Council and the National Rural Crime Network are having an impact
  • Protected wreck sites. Last autumn, Historic England working with MSDS Marine and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) and partners announced an innovative forensic marking system to protect some of England’s 57 most historic and archaeologically important wreck sites. These include the Dutch warship Klein Hollandia. This new technology should act as a deterrent to those seeking to steal historic artefacts such as cannon from the seabed
  • Cyber-enabled crime. The use of the internet has grown, and it is likely that stolen items will continue to be sold online where offenders can (often anonymously) make a profit. It is also likely that a higher number of fakes will enter the market as scams and fraudulent activity online rises

Heritage and cultural property crime robs us of our collective history. This research marks the next stage in our commitment to tackle such crime. More effective crime recording across all police forces in the UK, including a heritage marker to highlight protected sites and cultural property crime, would help us to understand trends better and to tackle serious organised crime and anti-social behaviour.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive Historic England

When metal, stone or other items are stolen from our historic buildings and cultural sites, it impacts the communities who enjoy those spaces. We welcome any research into this area of criminality, which helps us to better understand the issue and, therefore, tailor our response to pursue offenders and deter any future opportunists. We are committed to tackling this issue and our heritage crime officers across the country will continue to work with Historic England and other partners, to reduce offending and educate the wider public about the long-lasting damage heritage crime can have.

Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Nolan NPCC Lead for Heritage Crime

Since the launch of the Heritage Crime Programme in 2011, Historic England has made significant progress in preventing and investigating crime and anti-social behaviour in the historic environment. This progress has been made possible by working with members of ARCH (the Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage) and the thousands of people, organisations and charities who own and care for our historic buildings and sites. The findings of this assessment will help us to develop the new tactics and technologies required to be 1 step ahead of those intent on stealing from our past.

Mark Harrison, Head of Heritage Crime Historic England

Historic stone theft – York stone

York stone is a popular material for construction, building and landscaping. The variety of colours and its durability make it desirable. According to Ecclesiastical Insurance, York stone slabs taken from the grounds of historic properties such as churches can cost up to £400 per square metre to replace.

The latest research reveals that theft of historic stone from some of our most cherished historic sites rose 9% in 2022. Offenders have been known to be highly organised, disguising themselves by wearing high-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 assessment is that the demand for valuable York stone will continue, and therefore offending will continue while a profit can be gained.

The ARCH partnership is calling for enhanced intelligence-gathering and scrutiny of the trade relating to ‘architectural salvage’, which includes York stone.

Metal theft from places of worship

The research reveals that the theft of metal roofing, notably lead, from historic churches increased by 41% during the lockdown periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. These offences are likely to have been committed by both opportunistic offenders and organised crime groups.

Between January and November 2023, the theft of lead from church roofs decreased by 26.2% compared with the same period in 2022. Improved security measures may have helped this, as well as introducing Heritage Watch schemes and prosecuting 2 organised crime groups responsible for stealing high volumes of roofing lead from historic church buildings from Dorset to Yorkshire.

The latest figures show that lead prices increased by 8% between January and November 2023 (£1,309 per tonne 2023 average) compared with the same period in 2022. To try to reduce the threat of theft, some listed historic churches are replacing stolen lead with stainless steel after consulting Historic England's guidance on metal theft from places of worship.

Many offences, including removing small parts of lead flashing at a time, may have gone unnoticed during the summer of 2022. The high price of lead may have also encouraged opportunists.

Nationally, there are 943 places of worship on Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register in 2023. There are 53 places of worship on the Register that have threats listed linked to heritage crime as one or more of the following:

  • Arson
  • Theft – fixtures and fittings
  • Theft – metal
  • Theft – other external materials
  • Vandalism

Unlawful metal detecting (nighthawking)

A 9.3% reduction in unlawful metal detecting (also known as nighthawking) has been highlighted in the research. This has been made possible with the support of vigilant landowners and the legitimate metal-detecting community working in partnership with the police.

Historic England has also been working with members of the metal detecting community to train detectorists as part of the ‘Heritage Watch’ scheme. It is likely that further work to raise awareness of laws surrounding metal detecting will encourage responsible detection and reporting of finds.

The small minority of metal detectorists who break the law are being identified and brought to justice.

High value burglaries

The research highlights offences relating to the theft of objects from art galleries, museums and stately homes, with artwork and antiques being the most stolen items. Organised crime groups are believed to be responsible for a number of sophisticated burglaries resulting in significant financial and cultural loss, estimated to be more than £3.2 million of cultural property stolen across the 2021/2022 period.

Accurate recording of heritage crime and anti-social behaviour

The ARCH partnership (Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage) is calling for enhanced crime recording standards and the development of a heritage crime ‘marker’ on police call handling and crime management systems.

Currently, no standardised methodology exists across all police forces, and heritage crime is not considered a priority. This limits our understanding of the true scale and extent of heritage crime in the historic environment and how to deal with it.

If introduced, appropriate changes to police systems would lead to consistent records and a more accurate understanding of the scale and extent of crime and anti-social behaviour in the historic environment, leading to more effective crime prevention and enforcement activity.

Fires in historic buildings can have a significant impact in a short period of time, damaging the building fabric, causing the economic value to reduce, and harming part of the nation’s shared cultural heritage. Developing partnerships with owners and Historic England, arson risk assessments can make historical buildings less of a target for arson and mitigate its impact in the event of a fire.

Robin Turnbull, Arson and Anti-Social Behaviour Lead Officer National Fire Chiefs' Council

This assessment reminds us that cultural heritage transcends time and generations. In the face of the many risks highlighted in this report, we must act quickly and decisively to safeguard our museums, galleries, and heritage sites for the enjoyment and education of future generations.

Vernon Rapley, Director of Security Victoria & Albert Museum