A wave of low-level metal theft is blighting Bethnal Green – and affecting individuals and businesses, as Michael Pooler discovered.
It was a classic case of ‘I told you so’: coming home from a pre-Christmas drink my flat-mate warned me not to leave my bicycle outside our building – even if chained up with a strong steel lock and braided metal cable to secure the wheels.
The next morning his portent was proven partly right. While the frame and wheels were still intact the handlebars were gone – removed with tools and likely to be sold as scrap metal.
The caretaker of my block says it is nothing new: “There are drug addicts who hang around this estate. They will take anything unless it is nailed down. When the [council] flats in this block were empty, they squatted them and stripped all of the copper piping and boilers. They sell it for scrap and get a few quid if they’re lucky.”
This means Tower Hamlets homes cannot let out the flats without paying to replace all of the plumbing work.
He tells me that thieves even once tried to steal the metal communal bins but were foiled when scrap merchants alerted the authorities.
What happened to my bike was not an isolated incident.
The rise in iron and copper prices – fuelled by demand from developing countries like China – means that scrap, which is smelted down and reused, attracts a premium. In Bethnal Green this has resulted in a constant current of petty metal theft, concentrated around the area between the high street and railway station.
A1 Car Care garage, located beneath the railway arches, is one business that has felt the cost of such criminality. Thieves made off with lead from a roof and recently one of the taxis they hire out had its exhaust cut off – the second time this has happened.
“It will cost three to four hundred pounds to replace and it means the driver is out of work,” says owner Fikret Hassan. “They must have cut it off with a hacksaw, it’s the only way you could get underneath without a jack. It is diabolical.”
Indeed pilfering catalytic converters in order to extract the valuable platinum they contain is lucrative business these days, says the manager of a scaffolding firm with operations across south and east London who didn’t wish to be named.
“We have had the catalytic converter stolen from one of our work vehicles, a 4×4 Toyota, when the guy parked it outside his house one evening. They know what they are doing – they take it for the precious metal.
“While they sell it for £300 at a scrap yard, the part can cost up to £2,500 to replace. The delivery time means we lose that vehicle for four or five days and with it work.
“From speaking with others it seems to be happening everywhere. It is a very serious crime and not enough is being done about it.”
Houses facing the arches have also been targeted. Like many others in his street, the lead roofing on the bay window of Soleman Hussain’s home was stripped around a year ago.
“At first the water leaked in but I can’t afford to fix it, it would cost around £200,” he explains.
He points to a drain on the street, gaping open without a cover: “They took that about two weeks ago but they [the council] still haven’t come to fix it.”
The thieves’ audacity even extends to daylight robbery.
“You see them walking past in the middle of the day with shopping trolleys full of the stuff,” says Neil, who runs a sports trophies shop nearby.
As if to confirm this, moments later I see a man hurriedly pushing a bicycle laden with a metal gate. His direction: one of the scrap-yards under the arches.
Serrif Farmer, owner of Solis Launderette, recounts the desperation of thieves:
“A while ago people went into the toilet at the back and took a small length of copper pipe. I don’t know why, it couldn’t be worth much.”
Some people point the finger at the local scrap merchants, who they say accept stolen wares. I called two dealers in the area to hear their side. One did not answer the listed phone number, while at the other, an employee said the boss was ‘away for a few weeks’ and that he could not answer any questions.
Others argue the council and police are not doing enough. Yet the current state of the law means that the authorities’ hands are tied in what they can do, says Inspector Gary Anderson of Tower Hamlets police.
“A problem [in crime prevention] is that antiquated legislation allows scrap merchants to still operate on a cash-in-hand basis, without the requirement for any ID [of sellers] or the obligation to keep a record of vehicle registration numbers.”
In November the police launched Operation Ferrous, a Metropolitan-wide drive to flush out metal theft. This has seen the force targeting scrap merchants through spot-checks as well as stopping and searching vehicles believed to be laden with illegally acquired metal.
“We can check that vehicles have the relevant documentation and proper haulage licenses,” Anderson explained. “But as it is very difficult to know whether the metal has been illegally obtained, we urge people to lock up anything metal or valuable and UV mark their possessions.”
“Since the start of the operation at least two premises operating as scrap metal dealers in Tower Hamlets have closed,” says Anderson.
“We cannot say for certain that they closed due to [Operation Ferrous], but it happened in the weeks following our visit. The purpose of the operation is a tightening up of scrap yards in the borough and cutting off the destinations where people can go to sell stolen metal.”
The police call on the public to dial 999 to report on any suspicious behaviour such as people pushing shopping trolleys containing metal objects.