Often unseen and under-reported, crimes carried out on historic sites are now being tackled through a initiative led by English Heritage.
A study published by the organisation last November suggested that the problem is growing and that reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Arson, architectural theft, removal of artefacts from protected sites and vehicle nuisance posed the greatest threats, it found.
Kent Police chief inspector Mark Harrison has worked on secondment with English Heritage since March last year and his work has led to the signing of a memorandum of understanding which sets out responsibilities between itself, Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers in tackling the problem. It is hoped that this will create more opportunities to charge and prosecute individuals for heritage offences. Three local authorities have also signed, and others are being encouraged to do so.
Alliance sets priorities
Then in February, more than 40 organisations, including the National Trust, National Parks, the Woodland Trust and the Historic Houses Association, set up the Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage (ARCH), a voluntary national network to promote a range of initiatives to tackle four priority types of crime. This includes the prevention and detection of criminal damage to the historic environment and of unlawful excavation and removal of articles.
According to Harrison: "Good progress has been made in establishing co-ordinated working relations between the enforcement agencies and setting priorities at a national level. But the most important part of the initiative is the engagement of communities across the country in establishing their own networks. A real difference will only follow if this galvanises local action." Communities are being urged to understand the heritage assets at risk in their area and report suspicious behaviour to police.
Himself a keen archaeologist, Harrison established a policing group which undertook the first national assessment of heritage crime in 2010. He also helps to train and advise police officers and practitioners on techniques to be used during search warrants, and how best to preserve forensic recovery of both criminal and historical evidence.
"There is a vast range of crime, from the day-to-day to the sort that specifically targets ancient monuments - for which there is specific legislation, going back to the Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882," Harrison explains.
"You can only destroy the site of a Roman fort with your Range Rover once - you can't go and buy another one. In such cases we bring the seriousness of the crime to the notice of the courts via an impact statement. A magistrates' court can then adjust the sentence it hands out to reflect that."
The model developed in his own Kent police force to address heritage crime will be rolled out nationally under the initiative, he explains. This involves mapping out where assets are in a given area - buildings, landscape features, even shipwrecks, then looking at what pattern of crime there been historically. Each site is then graded low, medium or high risk.
"We build up a profile for the site - whether the problem is seasonal or persistent," says Harrison. "We then create a crime prevention plan, and work with wardens and police community support officers on how to both prevent crime in those areas, and how to bring offenders to justice."
He adds: "We are in a challenging economic situation, of which we have to take account. But it takes less resources to prevent the crime in the first place."
Encouraging crime reporting
The initiative has already gained some attention, with a recent item on the BBC news. "I've had a huge amount of correspondence since then, mostly from people saying, 'It's about time'," says Harrison. "People in this country have a huge attachment to their heritage."
As the country's largest landowner, the National Trust has a strong interest in being involved. "It's still in development now, but it will raise the profile of heritage crime," explains operations manager Steve Davis.
"We get theft of metals, lead, 'night hawking' on archaeological sites, along with the more general anti-social behaviour and graffiti. It's often a generational problem - you'll have a group of youngsters who do these sorts of things together but then they grow up and move on, so it's up and down."
The trust has already had taken steps to deal with the problem, he says. "We encourage property managers to report crimes, although if they're going to try to apprehend offenders, they should always put safety first, and ensure they have backup.
"We aim to get the police involved at an early stage, but part of the problem has been ensuring they recognise that these aren't victimless crimes. It's not been a high priority for them - they have a lot of other things to deal with, compared to the defacing of a monument."
His views are echoed by Woodland Trust's head of woodland management Andy Sharkey. "We own scheduled ancient monuments and other historic features in our woods, which are occasionally damaged either through unlawful metal detecting or mountain biking, although it's less of a concern than just general anti-social behaviour," he says.
As a founding member of the ARCH initiative, he explains: "We were keen to be part of this because these sorts of crimes tend to fall between two stools. They're not usually the sort of thing the police are interested in."
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
A three-year grant from Natural England has enabled the Woodland Trust to engage with communities in the north-west of England in a bid to cut the bill for fly-tipping on its properties.
According to the trust's site manager for the area Tim Kirwin: "We have many woodlands that we took on, some bordered on all four sides by housing. Some people don't like trees, or are fearful of them, so they get abused, or have things dumped on them - not just green waste - I have had to deal with the entire contents of someone's house. I had the highest fly tipping bill of all the trust's areas - £9,000 a year in one wood alone."
Yet the options available to counter the problem are limited, he says. "Prosecuting householders is difficult, and not enough of a deterrent. Fencing sites had some effect, but didn't stop it. We needed to engage people on the issue."
The trust began a concerted campaign aimed at children in particular to get them to use and appreciate the woods. It concentrated on 10 sites where potential savings were greatest, working with schools within reach of them.
"We have worked with thousands of kids in primary schools - they've loved it," says Kirwin. "Often they know more and have more respect for these places than their parents and they take that home with them. But we also found that one in six of the primary kids had never been in a woodland before."
Children have been taught bushcraft skills and built campfires, while others have been engaged through community events, seasonal walks, and extra support to friends groups. Training has been given to teachers in the hope that they will continue the initiatives themselves.
The trust has drawn on assistance of other groups including BTCV. "I predicted we'd get about £2,500 in volunteer time and other gifts in kind - we got more than ten times that," says Kirwin. "The need was there but also the will to do something."
He has already cut his annual fly-tipping bill from £45,000 to £35,000, and aims to make the same reduction again. "That's money that can be spent on trees and woods," he says. "The measure of success will be, are they still doing it in 12 months' time? That's something we intend to find out."