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Arson attacks realise “millions of pounds’ worth” of damage to churches

02 August 2022

THOSE RESPONSIBLE for looking after church buildings are being urged by Ecclesiastical Insurance to take steps to prevent arson after a church in Sheffield was seriously damaged in a recent incident. Pitsmoor Christ Church was the victim of a fire on Monday 4 July. South Yorkshire Police are investigating the episode as being a suspected arson attack.

Claims data collated and issued by Ecclesiastical Insurance shows that over 150 churches across the UK have suffered arson attacks over the past five years alone, causing millions of pounds’ worth of damage to historic buildings in the process. While the number of attacks dropped during the pandemic, Ecclesiastical is warning that urgent preventative action is needed over the summer months, which is when arson attacks more frequently occur.

In fact, the Gloucester-based specialist insurer’s data reveals that almost every county in the country has seen churches targeted by arsonists, with London, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Essex and Kent the worst affected.

Unlike the theft of metal where organised gangs tend to carry out raids over a large geographical area, arson is often the result of the actions of an individual and there are no clear trends. That truism alone renders proactive action to protect church buildings an even more important consideration.

Substantial impact

Specialist insurer Ecclesiastical was formed over 135 years ago to protect Anglican churches and church buildings against the risk of fire. The company’s risk management experts produce fire prevention advice, including arson prevention guidance, specifically designed to help protect churches.

While thankfully a rare occurrence, the impact of arson on churches and the wider community can be substantial as recent significant fires have shown.

In 2017, the Grade II-listed Church of the Ascension in Lower Broughton, Greater Manchester was devastated by an arson attack leaving the community distraught. The restoration project, led by Ecclesiastical, is due for completion later on this year.

All Saints Church in Mackworth, Derbyshire was gutted by fire in December 2020. A teenager has since pleaded guilty to setting fire to the church and schools in the area and is waiting to be sentenced. A lengthy restoration project is underway to restore the Grade I-listed building and return it to the local community.

Additional steps

Following the incident in Sheffield, Ecclesiastical’s risk management team has urged additional steps to be taken by responsible parties in order to protect churches.

Jo Whyman, risk management director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, explained: “Our data shows that arson seems to be on the increase again. The impact of these attacks can be truly devastating. It’s horrible to see churches damaged as a result of a fire, and particularly so at the hands of criminals.”

Whyman continued: “These buildings are part of the fabric of our society. They are at the heart of our communities and have been for centuries. Senseless acts perpetrated by individuals not only destroy bricks and mortar, but often priceless artefacts that have historical significance to our nation.”

To help manage the risk of an arson attack and protect the nation’s cherished historic churches, Ecclesiastical’s risk experts have issued salient advice on how church buildings can be better protected.

Keeping churches secure

Church doors, windows and any external gates should be locked at night. Install security lights and keep the exterior of the building well lit. Consider installing fire alarms, intruder alarms and CCTV that provides continual monitoring at an Alarm Receiving Centre

Report suspicious activity

Use the building as much as possible for church and community activities

Practice good housekeeping

Keep internal doors shut and locked when not in use. This can slow the spread of fire through a building and prevents access to obscure areas. Safely store items (ie portable heaters) that could start fires inside the church and move bins away from the outside of the building. Take particular care when building or maintenance projects are being undertaken, ensuring that building materials and waste are stored safely, securely and well away from the building

Carry out regular external inspections of church buildings and grounds

Make regular checks of the building and report damage to the police and insurance providers as soon as possible. Cut back vegetation on a regular basis

Repair damage to the church immediately

A damaged building is at risk of further attacks, including arson. Ensure that any damage is repaired and graffiti removed quickly

Check fire extinguishers

Check that there are enough fire extinguishers on the premises, including some that are water (hydro-spray) or carbon dioxide-based

Be prepared for fire

Maintain an up-to-date fire risk assessment for the premises. Consider ways in which deliberate fires could be started as well as how they can be prevented and the risk reduced

Whyman concluded: “Those in charge of churches are legally required to carry out a fire risk assessment and, in doing so, they’ll be able to understand the risk of fire, including the risk of an arson attack. It’s really important that steps are taken to prevent fires. By following our guidance, individuals and teams can help to reduce the risk of arson at their location. The good news is that many of the recommended safeguards don’t require capital investment, but rather simple precautionary steps which could make all the difference.”