Metal theft has, over the last few years, had a significant impact on communities, businesses and councils themselves. A survey we conducted in early 2012 showed that seven out of ten councils had been the victims of metal theft, and that this cost councils over £5.25 million in 2010/11. Co-ordinated action by the police, councils, the Environment Agency/Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and other organisations since 2011, particularly through Operation Tornado, has been successful in reducing metal theft rates. This joint work has been aided by a fall in the price of metals since they peaked in early 2011. However the high metal prices we have seen recently, driven by industrialisation in China, are likely to continue to be a feature of the world economy over the next decade, and possibly longer, as other countries like India and Brazil follow a similar pattern of growth.
That is why the Local Government Association – following requests from our members, along with a range of other bodies – pressed the government to reform the regulation of scrap metal dealers. The result was the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, taken through Parliament by Richard Ottaway MP as a private members’ bill. Much of the thrust of British Transport Police’s Operation Tornado was to get dealers to voluntarily adopt measures (such as proper checks on the identities of sellers) that went on to inform, influence and be included in the Act; so we know that this legislation will make a difference to levels of metal theft in England and Wales. There are undoubted challenges for councils in introducing a new licensing regime in a comparatively short timescale, and then enforcing it. However, it is in our own interests to make this legislation work. We have seen the results of high metal prices and an environment where thieves felt there was little risk of being caught. We have seen communications and trains disrupted, precious memorials desecrated, artwork stolen, church and library roofs vandalised, manhole covers, gully covers and road signage stolen. Money we could have spent on other vital local services has instead been taken up replacing what has been lost. Motivated by this I am sure councils will go that extra mile to ensure the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 is implemented successfully.