Testing our mettle

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The heat is on as police hunt down heavy metal thieves putting lives on the line for a quick killing on the “scrap” metal market.

ew towns are of the mettle – or metal – of Blackpool. The resort cast its name in iron, and steel, in the form of the Tower, before underpinning it with the heavy metal thrills of the Pleasure Beach.

Today the resort is paying the price for attracting a different sort of sightseer to the seaside, the sort even likely to look at the Lights – with a view to checking out the cabling.

Cable has disappeared from railway tracks – lives literally being put on the line, the tramway – along with lead from roofs of the Model Village, the Salvation Army, churches, schools, even the courts.

There’s been an art attack too. Four plinths now stand bereft of statues at Stanley Park, three of them nicked for their lead content, the other taken into safe keeping by Blackpool Council, although the pride of the park, the lions, remain in place.

Iconic pop artist Sir Peter Blake, of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover fame, never expected one of his artworks to be hacked away and smelted down for pounds several years after installing two sculptures opposite Blackpool Pleasure Beach for a £100k commission.

To add insult to injury, Life As A Circus marked his first public sculpture, a coup for the resort.

Custodianship has come at a cost to the town’s reputation with one of the figures now joining the Stanley Park statues in storage, the other, damaged, piece, reduced, by metal thieves, rather than vandals, to a lone acrobat on a horse, his butchered arms reaching to the skies almost in supplication.

It took more than 18 centuries for the Venus de Milo to lose her arms. Life As a Circus managed less than seven years in place on our Promenade in a resort which has previously hoped to bag UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Now Blackpool Council’s community partnership, headed by former police chief Russ Weaver, is considering the possibility of putting replicas in the place of the missing art, but that too could come at a cost. Not just financially, but again in terms of the bigger picture, the message sent out.

“I think we’re all appalled by this act of destruction,” Mr Weaver adds. “And the fact is the thieves will have got very little for the sculpture, pounds compared with its artistic merit and value.”

Much the same applies to the lead-based figures which overlooked the ornate centrepiece fountain, itself previously vandalised, in Stanley Park’s Italian Gardens since 1926.

It’s worth reflecting life was far from easy in 1926. This was the year of the General Strike, when Brits downed tools for nine days, and miners were in lock-out against pay cuts and longer hours for months until hunger, and need, drove many back to work by November.

Fast forward to 2011 and Elaine Smith, chairwoman of Blackpool Civic Trust, can’t believe that those plinths are now in vacant possession, three of their sitting tenants likely to have been smashed beyond recognition, in order to be smelted to oblivion – because of the high value of metal right now.

As pieces of silver go, it’s a betrayal of Blackpool’s heritage.

Elaine explains: “Such items can’t be sold through normal channels so have to be fenced, cutting down the thief’s money. Items precious to the town are lost for little profit. I hope and pray that when these people are caught they are ‘out of towners’ and not Blackpool residents. I would hate to think locals would think so little of our assets they would spoil it for the rest of us for such little gain.

“Lead theft is rife, not just here, but other towns are being stripped, including Preston and Blackburn.

“English Heritage insists that in the case of listed buildings, proper lead has to be put back on the roof. If it’s stolen again, proving its vulnerability, it can be replaced by a plastic that looks like lead but which deters thieves. This has already been done on the Salvation Army Citadel, another of our listed buildings.”

Ena Richardson, 91, of Central Drive, who can remember Stanley Park opening, says: “People get away with anything these days. If I had my way I’d bring back the birch. As a child, living in Hawes Side, I remember a man getting three strokes, in the back of the police station, for stealing two hens. You could hear his cries all over.”

Ultimately, thieves – and those they prey upon – could pay the ultimate price. Kids have scavenged for scrap wire and cables on dangerous demolition sites.

An elderly local woman died after falling down a manhole – the cover stolen outside her home. Metal thieves left 600 properties without power after breaking into a local electricity sub-station for copper conductors. Callous thieves left gas leaking from the wall of a local house after stealing copper gas pipes. Lead flashing, copper piping and TV aerials were stripped from a dozen houses in the town centre, with the residents at home.

This week thieves brought bank holiday chaos to commuters and holidaymakers after trying to remove cabling alongside live railway tracks at Carleton crossing.Lives could have literally on the line.

Now the heat is on. Police monitor known offenders, spot check vans, and swoop on scrapyards. Transport police have removed cabling from a local scrapyard to check for anti-theft coding.

Western division chief superintendent Richard Debicki says public opinion is valuable. “There’s outrage about this, and they are our eyes and ears.”

One scrap metal dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “We’re being demonised. Most of us run a tight ship. I’d say most of the stuff is vanishing in white vans down the motorway. We’re on guard. It’s not in our interests to get closed down.”

Last year’s campaign against illegal “scrap” metal activity led to 20 prosecutions and 18 formal cautions in the region. One local business losed after its owner was fined £7,000.

Heritage champion Elaine urges courts to mete out tougher punishments, in line with zero tolerance taken on rioters and looters. “Make it a real deterrent.”

In Kent, last month, a man who stole copper from a railway line was handed a 12-month community order and ordered to pay £86 costs.

jacqui.morley@ blackpoolgazette.co.uk