Police crackdowns have been launched in south Wales and Hull as thieves target regeneration schemes to steal boilers and pipework.
Earlier this week Humberside police said they had arrested a man and woman on suspicion of forcing entry and removing the boiler from a terraced house.
PC Craig Nixon said this was part of a wider initiative to stamp out the problem. “Criminals see these properties as easy targets,” he said. “These people are putting themselves at risk of serious harm. Building sites are dangerous places.
“Ripping out pipes, boilers and other equipment exposes gas and electricity supplies, which is extremely hazardous.”
Cardiff Council said it has had to fork out more than £100,000 to repair damage caused by boiler thieves.
The problem is growing, with about 8 per cent of the council’s vacant properties targeted by thieves who strip out boilers, radiators and copper piping.
Chris Hughes, who manages the council’s vacant housing stock, said: “This is very expensive for the council. In the last financial year we had 80 boilers stolen and those are just the ones which are reported – I am sure there are a lot more.
“It is building up year by year and is not going away. That is why we are working with the police to try to tackle this.
“These are not old pieces of equipment – these are brand new Worcester boilers we have installed as part of our renewal programme. We are also losing money because of the rent we lose while we are replacing the boilers and repairing the property.”
The council manages 14,000 properties with around 1,000 becoming vacant during the year. Mrs Hughes said boilers were being targeted in vacant properties by both amateur thieves and professionals who go to the trouble of capping pipes after they have taken the boilers.
“Some appear to be getting stolen to order, while others are getting taken because people think they are worth something as scrap – when they actually have very little value,” she said.
She added that the thieves were endangering safety and upsetting families who were often desperate to find a home: “Sometimes the damage caused is awful and can be extremely dangerous. In one terrace property I visited the thieves had fractured the pipework which was left leaking the whole weekend.
“Unfortunately council properties seem to be seen as easy targets. In one case we repaired and replaced a boiler one day and by the time the new tenant moved in the next day the boiler had been stolen again!
“It is devastating when you cannot move people into properties because of this. Recently we had two homeless families ready to move into two lovely places, but thieves broke in, fractured one of the gas pipes and we had water damage coming through the ceilings”
In another case a house being made ready for a young mum had its boiler stolen just a couple of days before she was due to move in. The council immediately repaired the damage, but thieves broke in almost immediately to steal the boiler yet again.
Detective Chief Inspector Alun Morgan from South Wales Police said: “The dangers and damage associated with this type of crime are obvious. We believe that there is an urban myth circulating claiming that the scrap metal value of these boilers is high. In fact modern boilers are of little value to a scrap metal merchant.”
The national problem of metal theft forced the Association of Chief Police Officers to discuss the issue earlier this year.
Mrs Hughes said: ““I believe this is happening all over the country and is a big issue for a lot of local authorities.”