Church roofs: replacement of lead following theft

Whilst the theft of lead from church roofs is often considered to be a recent phenomenon, some of the greatest losses occurred as a consequence of the Reformation, either through its removal by the monarch’s officials, local landowners and villagers during the suppression of the religious houses, or as in Wells Cathedral, where it was removed and sold by the Chapter itself to compensate for the loss of income following the abolition of chantries.

The relative ease of its removal and subsequent sale for recycling presents an opportunity to present-day thieves and although changes have been made in the secular legislation, churches continue to be faced with the problems of replacing stolen roofing material.  Insurance payments for replacement are generally capped at quite a low level, and in some cases an insurer has refused to make any payment where scaffolding has assisted thieves’ access to the roof.

Whenever lead has been removed, it is imperative that the roof is made watertight as soon as possible in order to minimize damage to the fabric of the building and its contents. The urgency of this requirement combined with the costs of replacement with lead or an alternative is the basis for most of the consistory courts’ deliberations in this area. A further complicating factor arises when choosing an appropriate replacement when there have been repeat thefts from churches in remote locations or where there is limited visibility of the building.

One of the more recent consistory court judgments is Re All Saints Leamington Hastings [2014] Ch. Coventry Const, Ct., Eyre Ch., provides an opportunity to review other case law in this area, bearing in mind the fact-specific nature of such determinations, and the absence of a sophisticated doctrine of binding precedent and stare decisis within the church courts. Nevertheless, Chancellors sometimes include general guidance on specific areas with a view to consistency of judicial decision making.

Facilitating urgent action 

A detailed consideration of the issues involved in the replacement of traditional materials, i.e. lead, with a synthetic covering was made by the Worshipful Mark Hill QC in Re Bexhill St. Michael & All Angels [2011] Chichester Const. Ct. Hill Ch. which considered the conjoined cases: St Michael and All Angels, Bexhill; All Saints Danehill; St Matthew, St Leonards-on-sea; St Mary, Balcombe; and St John the Evangelist, Upper St Leonard. This is discussed further below, and in addition, the Chancellor gave guidance in relation to three important areas of the faculty jurisdiction: minor works; dispensation from faculty; and interim faculties: important since adherence to the requirement of the faculty jurisdiction is sometimes seen as secondary to the urgent need for remediation.

Selection of replacement materials

There is no shortage of guidance on alternative materials which might be used to replace stolen lead roofing[1], but it is only the consistory courts that have the authority to grant permission for its use, as either a temporary or permanent repair.  Anyone seeking a confirmatory faculty for a “quick fix” solution would be advised to read the judgement Re St. Mary the Blessed Virgin Eastry [2012] Canterbury Const Ct, Morag Ellis Com. Gen. where the PCC had incurred a cost of £90,000 for the unlawful installation of Ubiflex, a synthetic coating, which the Commissary General ruled had to be replaced after five years.

In Re St Michael and All Angels, Bexhill, supra the Worshipful Mark Hill, QC, considered five conjoined petitions relating to interim faculties where authorization had been given for the use of synthetic material replacements.  The DAC indicated that each case should be considered on its merits, but also gave the following general guidance:

Visibility: the appearance of the replacement materials will be a significant factor, particularly when applied to large areas and on a listed building.

Reversibility: it is possible that the market demand for lead and copper will reduce over the next five to ten years, [i.e. from 2011] with a consequent fall in price and metal theft will decline. At that point, the parish should be able to replace the current material with a more traditional covering, if they so wish.

Durability and longevity: as yet there is very little concrete evidence on the long-term performance of non-metallic materials when applied to church roofs. The Committee would therefore have reservations about using such materials on significant historic buildings and would encourage parishes to look at alternative metals such as terne-coated steel.

The DAC endorsed the advice of English Heritage that lead should be retained wherever possible for technical, practical and aesthetic reasons and because traditional materials are an important part of the character of historic buildings. When replacement is necessary it is desirable to use lead on a like-for-like basis, with appropriate security measures installed to deter theft. It strongly supported the installation of security systems where appropriate to protect roofs and noted that Ecclesiastical Insurance feels that there is evidence to suggest that these are effective in deterring theft. However, its members recognized that there are some circumstances in which like-for-like replacement following a theft is not prudent; for example where a building has suffered previous thefts and there is a significant possibility of further theft.

New materials are still appearing on the market, each with different characteristics and methods of application […] It is important that each material is considered on its own merits and on its suitability for use on either listed or unlisted buildings.

The Church Buildings Council, (CBC), did not proffer specific advice on the individual petitions, but gave generic advice for cases of repeated theft of metal roof coverings, viz.

  • it is good stewardship for PCCs to consider alternatives in such circumstances. Nevertheless, metal roofs, in particular lead, can contribute significantly to the historic character of church buildings, and the Council considers that, as with all matters relating to change to church buildings, a balance needs to be struck between the necessity for the work and the historic interest of the existing roof covering. Issues that need to be taken into account include:
  • the significance of the original covering and its contribution to the historic character of the church;
  • the contribution of the original covering to the appearance of the church, e.g. whether it is a feature of the show side of the church or hidden behind a parapet;
  • the experience of the PCC in relation to metal theft, and whether measure such as alarms are likely to be effective in the circumstances;
  • whether an alternative would provide a reasonable aesthetic solution and good value for money in the long term.

The CBC provided a more technical assessment on alternative materials and their use. It noted that lead was commonly replaced with terne-coated stainless steel[3] which has a similar appearance, a substantial lifespan, and is not currently prone to theft. However, it was of the opinion that Decothane, a liquid-applied roof waterproofing substance based on polyurethane was unsuitable: this was reported to have a working life of 10 to 25 years[4], but “apart from the visual appearance which is of a flat grey (or can be coloured) smooth surface, this material falls far short of several qualities expected of a lead, or other sheet metal covering . . . lead correctly installed and left undisturbed is expected to last 70-100 years or more, and other sheet metals in excess of 50 years”. Furthermore, it stated:

“Terne-coated stainless steel and zinc are possible suitable alternatives to lead sheet roofing in vulnerable areas of roof not generally on view. Any change of material requires careful consideration of detail, i.e. potential condensation risks and reaction with adjacent materials (zinc is vulnerable to corrosion[5]), how to counteract the noise of rain on the roof, and whether insulation can be practically and economically incorporated as the roof is re-covered.”

Whilst English Heritage “continues to encourage the use of authentic and appropriate sheet metals on historic church roofs”, it indicated [11] that “it would not expect to be consulted on proposals for changing roofing materials on unlisted buildings (such as Bexhill) or grade II listed (Danehill)” as articulated in the Code of Practice for the Ecclesiastical Exemption, para 4(ii), footnote 25.

The Chancellor had additionally contacted the insurers, Ecclesiastical Insurance Office plc (EIO), who indicated it has no objection to replacing external lead which had been stolen with cheaper metal assuming the requisite permissions had first been obtained. In view of the commercial issues involved,  it was unsurprising that EIO provide statistical information nor the likely effect on insurance premiums generally in the event that like-for-like replacement were to be insisted upon by chancellors even in the case of persistent or repeated theft.

A confirmatory faculty was granted for the use of the liquid plastic material in respect of the petitions for St Michael and All Angels, Bexhill, All Saints, Danehill, St Matthew, St Leonards-on-Sea and St Mary, Balcombe for the reasons which were common to all four unlisted churches:

  • each church had been subject to repeated theft of lead roof coverings;
  • such theft had been in spite of taking all reasonable precautions, including the Smartwater system;
  • each church no longer had the benefit of insurance cover for like-for-like replacement;
  • the cost of replacement with lead was disproportionate to that of an alternative product;
  • the area affected was inconspicuous and not readily visible from the ground;
  • the proposed liquid plastic material is considered suitable for location proposed.

The Chancellor proceeded with greater caution in the cases of St Matthew, St Leonards-on-Sea, Grade B (II*) listed and St Mary, Balcombe, Grade I. In both cases, faculties were granted on the grounds listed in para. 48, but

“In the light of the fact that liquid plastic is a comparatively modern product without a proven track record of any length, it will be a condition of each faculty that the inspecting architect report on the state of the installation on the first anniversary of the completion of the works and further will include an express reference to the performance of the product in each subsequent quinquennial report.”

Limits placed on alternative materials

The time for which a temporary replacement material can be used is important both in terms of ensuring appropriate protection of the building, and providing the PCC the opportunity to raise funds for a permanent replacement.

The judgement in Re St. Mary the Blessed Virgin Eastry [2012] placed a five-year “sunset clause” on the replacement synthetic material, supra. Likewise, in Re All Saints Leamington Hastings [2014] Ch. Coventry Const, Ct., Eyre Ch. the Chancellor was not persuaded by the arguments of the PCC that the Dryseal GRP synthetic material should be authorized on a permanent basis, rather than replacing the stolen lead with lead or terne-coated stainless steel.  The DAC, English Heritage and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings all considered that GRP was not appropriate as a permanent solution and favoured terne-coated steel. The PCC’s arguments against steel (or indeed lead) was that, if the covering were again stolen, the insurers would limit a claim (including consequential damage) to £5,000 (or £10,000 if an alarm was fitted). The Chancellor decided that the insurance considerations should not be determinative of what was appropriate for the building. In this case, he decided that the GRP could remain for ten years, but must then be replaced by terne-coated steel or “an equivalent metallic material”.

However, the approval of replacement materials is case specific, and in Re Christ Church Fenton [2013] Lichfield Const. Ct,. Eyre Ch., a faculty was granted for the recovering of the north aisle roof of the church with a different synthetic material, Sarnafil. He also refused to accede to a request by English Heritage that the Faculty be limited to a period of 10 years.


The Scrap Metal Act 2013, which received Royal Assent on 28 February 2013 and came into force on 1 October 2013, was welcomed as positive step towards the reduction in the level of metal theft from churches and elsewhere[2].  However, as we have noted earlier, the Act alone will not prevent or reduce metal thefts unless supported by enforcement by the regulatory authorities, and prosecution of thefts under legislation that carries the appropriate tariffs. There have been early indications of significant reductions in theft from church roofs and in 2013, insurers Ecclesiastical report that:

“[f]igures show that that lead theft fell by 65% in 2012, the biggest year-on-year reduction seen since the crime became a major issue in 2007. The decline follows concerted efforts to deter criminals by the Government and a range of affected industries, including the utilities and transport sector.”

On 21 October 2014, Metal Recycling World reported that twelve months after the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, the taskforce to fight metal theft has been stripped to the bare bones and comprised only four officers.  Furthermore, section 18 of the Act requires the Secretary of State to undertake a review of the Act within 5 years of its enactment, which will provide another opportunity for opponents to attempt to attack its provisions.

For churches there remains the issue of the insurance premium and the low cap that is placed on payments for remediation. We would also note the case of Holy Trinity Church, Seaton Carew, Hartlepool which is reportedly faces a £3,000 bill since its insurance firm, Ecclesiastical, excludes burglaries where a scaffold is used – a standard exclusion on all church properties. Placing the onus for remediation onto the contractor would appear to be a possible solution, which has been used elsewhere

As we said in our 2013 post, the position on lead theft remains “modified rapture”.


[1] English Heritage: Theft of Metal from Church Buildings; Advisory Committees for the Care of Churches of the Dioceses of Coventry and Leicester: Alternative materials following lead theft; ChurchCare: Guidance note – Alternative roofing materials to lead.

[2] The Home Office announcement “Scrap metal laws to stop metal theft come into force” provides a summary of the new legislation.

[3] British Stainless Steel Association: Terne coated finishes on stainless steels.

[4] Depending upon the type used. The variants Beta 10, Omega 15, Gamma 20 and Delta 25 have assumed working lives of 10, 15, 20 and 25 years respectively.

[5] In fact, all dissimilar metals are subject to galvanic corrosion, and their relative position in the electrochemical series determines their corrosion characteristics in an in-use situation.

This post reports recent consistory court judgements in this area: it is not intended as a technical analysis of alternative roofing materials; neither does it support or contradict the statements made concerning these materials or their application, for which professional advice should be sought.   

Updated 14 May 2023 at 15:53. 

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