By Marcus Leach

Shameless thieves who desecrate war memorials, damage churches and cause transport chaos are being assisted by out of date legislation which hampers regulation of the scrap metal industry, council leaders warned.

Following a surge in the theft of copper, lead and bronze from memorials, railway lines and power cables, the Local Government Association is calling for councils to be given greater powers and resources to hold scrap metal dealers to account.

The majority of metal stolen by thieves for profit will end up being bought by scrap yards. But outdated legislation regulating the industry means that unscrupulous vandals who plunder metal plaques commemorating Britain's war dead are able to profit from their crimes without it being traced back to them.

In the run up to Remembrance Sunday, thieves have defaced and vandalised memorials by prising from them for metal to sell as scrap.

There are an estimated 100,000 memorials in the UK. The rising cost of metal has increasingly made them a target for thieves looking to make a quick buck.

Some of the memorials desecrated in recent months include:

- A four foot high statue of a soldier worth about £10,000 was stolen from a war memorial in Tidworth, Wiltshire on October 17.
- Fourteen metal plaques bearing the names of 243 soldiers who lost their lives in World War I were stolen from Carshalton War Memorial in Sutton in September. The London Borough of Sutton Council has commissioned new tablets to replace the original plaques and will be marking memorials with Smartwater — which shows up under UV light - to deter thieves.
- A war memorial in a churchyard in Willaston, Cheshire was badly damaged by thieves who in July stole from it two bronze plaques bearing the names of men from the village killed in the two world wars. The plaques have still not been replaced.

"It is utterly shameless and beyond contempt that anyone would desecrate the memory of those who have given their lives for their country in this way," Cllr Mehboob Khan, Chairman of the LGA's Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said.

"The value of these metal plaques far surpasses any price these heartless thieves will get for the metal.

"Often they are the only remaining source of information on people from an area who have paid the ultimate price while serving for their country.

"A lot of these stolen memorials will end up at scrap metal yards. Because of the out of date regulation of the scrap metal industry, thieves can make a quick buck from unscrupulous dealers and it is difficult to trace it back to them."

Theft of metal from railway lines, power stations and street furniture is estimated to cost the UK economy £770m per year, according to figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Scrap yard owners have a responsibility to register with their local authority, but local authorities have little power to regulate them once registered.

The LGA, which represents more than 350 councils in England and Wales is calling for local authorities to be given new powers to impose and enforce conditions on licences they issue to scrap dealers. These could include:

- Compulsory cashless payments so that people who sell scrap metal can be traced.
- The introduction of annual licences
- Installing CCTV with automatic number plate recognition in scrap yards.
- Enforcing guidance that stipulates scrap dealers keep a detailed log of people who they buy metal from.

Councils are also calling for a tougher punishment than the current maximum £1,000 fine for operation by unregistered scrap dealers.

"We have seen the number of metal thefts soar this year. Councils are determined to do something about this but at the moment have very limited power to tackle rogue dealers," Cllr Khan added.

"The Scrap Metal Dealers Act was drawn up for a different age and different environment.

"If we are to clampdown on thieves causing chaos and heartbreak by plundering metal for a quick profit, we need to give councils power to ensure the industry is properly run."

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