Historic England’s advice on metal theft and its aftermath

Historic England has produced a new guide, Metal Theft from Historic Buildings: prevention, response and recovery. Following is a summary of the main points, in a series of verbatim extracts from the guide.

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Introduction

This advice note is for churchwardens, trustees, fabric officers, volunteers and owners who care for historic buildings, especially places of worship. Preventing metal theft, especially from roofs, is the priority but dealing with an attack appropriately is crucial to protect historic buildings and keep them in use.

At Historic England, we recognise the serious impact of metal theft. As well as damage to historic buildings, it causes expense, distress and frustration. Replacement and subsequent insurance can be costly.

The note deals mainly with the of lead roofs from historic churches but the information applies to other types of building and traditional metal. It is an update of our 2011 note, The of Metal from Church Buildings, and reflects our updated advice to those dealing with metal the and how to prevent it.

Historic England’s approach to metal theft

Historic England strongly encourages the use of appropriate and traditional materials for historic buildings, particularly on roofs. Changing the material of a building’s roof could detract enormously from the building’s appearance and significance and mean that it performs less well technically. This is why we start out with the position that like-for-like replacement following theft is highly desirable, with appropriate security measures.

Traditional metals, including sand-cast and rolled lead sheet, are regarded as the most appropriate for covering historic buildings due to the following reasons:

  • They are the material for which the structure of the building was designed
  • Their appearance
  • They are virtually maintenance-free
  • Their technical performance, ability to be repaired in situ and longevity
  • Their contribution to the significance of the building
  • Their ability to be recycled, minimising the carbon footprint of the building.

We will not support the pre-emptive removal of lead from roofs not affected by theft unless there are exceptional circumstances. Each case will need to be judged on its own merits and we appreciate that sometimes a change of material should be considered following a theft in order to ensure the long-term future of the building. We would only expect the most appropriate alternative to be used, such as a long-term durable metal with a known standard of performance, for example, terne-coated stainless steel. Slates or tiles could be an alternative where these would be historically appropriate and the roof is sufficiently steep. Any harm done to the significance of the historic building would need to be outweighed by the benefits, including ensuring wind- and weather-tightness.

Why Historic England considers traditional metal roofing to be important

The roof of an historic building is always an important element in its design, structure and appearance. Such buildings are often among the oldest, largest or most prominent buildings in the area and its roof is likely to be a major feature in the local streetscape or landscape. The roof is also fundamental to protecting the structure of a building and the fixtures and fittings inside. All these elements are part of what makes it valuable within a particular place.

A traditional metal roof such as lead, copper, or zinc is likely to make an important contribution to the character and significance of an historic building, particularly where it is visible from ground level, or surrounding higher ground or buildings.

Replacement following metal theft

Historic England advises that traditional metal, such as a lead roof covering, should be retained wherever possible. Changing the material could detract enormously from the building’s appearance and significance and mean that the building performs less well technically. This is why Historic England starts out with the position that like-for-like replacement following theft is highly desirable, with appropriate security measures.

Each case will need to be judged on its own merits and we recognise that in certain circumstances following theft like-for-like replacement would not be prudent. If we are persuaded that the risk of further theft is too high we will support appropriate alternative materials. We would only expect the most appropriate alternative to be used, such as a long-term durable metal with a known standard of performance, for example, terne-coated stainless steel or zinc. Slates or tiles could be an alternative where these would be historically appropriate and the roof is sufficiently steep. Any harm done to the significance of the historic building would need to be outweighed by the benefits, including ensuring wind and water tightness. Where a permanent replacement cannot be organised quickly, a short-term covering of roofing felt might be appropriate.

Getting permission and advice

If your building is Listed or in a Conservation Area, you need to ensure you get any necessary permissions and do not damage the building while trying to protect it. If your building is listed and you wish to use a different material to the one that was stolen, you will need to get Listed Building Consent (or denominational equivalent) and find out if you also need planning permission from your local planning authority.

Places of worship under Ecclesiastical Exemption (ie Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Union and United Reformed Church) have denominational consent systems that are equivalent to local authority Listed Building Consent. Even if the building is a place of worship under Ecclesiastical Exemption you must still consult the local authority to see if planning permission is required for a change of roof covering [emphasis added].

Before making decisions about replacing stolen metal, seek advice from an accredited conservation architect or building surveyor with conservation expertise as well as from the local authority or the relevant ecclesiastical advisory body.

Recovering the roof

We encourage those who care for historic buildings to take the long view when deciding which materials to use. We understand that sometimes a short-term covering will be permitted for a limited time after metal theft whilst a permanent roof covering is being identified or funds are being raised.

Permanent replacement

Replacing a traditional metal roof covering with another metal roof covering will usually have less of an impact on the appearance, character and significance of a historic building than synthetic non-metal materials.

Most roofs intended to be covered by lead have a shallow pitch and are not suitable for tiles or slates. Tiles or slates may also not be appropriate where a roof has a slightly steeper pitch but was designed for lead. In some cases where a roof is steep enough and was designed for slate or tiles they are likely to be a suitable alternative.

In some parts of the country where there are traditional local materials these may be long-term options. In all cases it is strongly recommended that alternative roof coverings must be long lasting and give reliable service and be relatively maintenance-free.

As well as looking attractive and contributing to the character and significance of an historic building, traditional metals perform very well, particularly where the historic roof structure was designed for them.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Historic England’s advice on metal theft and its aftermath" in Law & Religion UK, 13 July 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/07/13/historic-englands-advice-on-metal-theft-and-its-aftermath/

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