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Canny criminals and moving metal!

Not a week passes without us hearing of yet another weird, wonderful or wacky metallic item that the robbers of this world have chosen to pinch. Anything goes it would seem, quite literally, from drain covers, bus shelters, memorial plaques, roofing materials and lightening conductors, to car catalytic converters and external air conditioning units.

Councils in particular are finding this issue a challenging one. Recent surveys, carried out by the Local Government Association amongst others, have shown that the cost of metal theft has reached an all time high of £4.6 million over the past three years. At a time when many authorities are facing tough spending cuts, and are working really hard to protect frontline services, that’s money they can ill-afford to lose.

And aside from the financial implications, there are other issues at stake. Stolen manhole covers and road signs can be extremely dangerous to the wider community, potentially resulting in injury or even death. Local councils have a duty to protect members of the public, but can struggle to do so in such circumstances, particularly when items go missing on almost a daily basis.

And from an insurance perspective, that poses a real challenge. Authorities need to protect themselves not just against the loss, but also against being sued. Many are taking further advice to ensure they are fully covered. But that often means these cash strapped councils then have to find money for CCTV cameras and smart water marking systems, at the expense of other priority spending areas.

These deterrents are very important. But they can only ever be a secondary solution. What really needs to happen is for tougher laws to be brought into play to crack down on the issue.

And things are moving in the right direction. The Scrap Metal Dealers Bill is currently going through the House of Commons. It suggests that scrap yards run by unscrupulous dealers will be shut down, and cash payments for all scrap metal transactions will be banned.

According to the Association of British Insurers, scrap metal theft costs the insurance industry £1m a week. So it’s not just local authorities that have a vested interest in the issue. Anything more that the insurance sector can do to lend weight to the case would be extremely welcome.

But if – and when – the new laws get passed, the next challenge will be implementation. To really clamp down on metal theft, there will have to be firm guidance on how the new powers are to be put into practice. Let’s hope this all happens sooner rather than later so that the authorities can focus on the more important social and economic issues that are prevalent across so many areas of the country.

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