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If it isn’t bolted down …

Last week a Hull schoolboy became yet another victim of a global crime spree. Joshua Star-Harris never met his assailant, but the scars, the broken nose and the lost tooth point to the seriousness of the incident. The crime? Drain cover theft. Joshua was happily riding his scooter near his home when he came to an abrupt stop after his front wheel dropped into the coverless drain.

In some ways, perhaps, Joshua can count himself lucky. The crime of drain cover theft is so widespread that there have inevitably been a significant number of deaths over the past decade. There’s one tragic story from Bogota, Colombia, of a two-year old falling down a drain while chasing birds – her body was found a mile downstream. There are reports of vans in Colombia being equipped with heavy lifting equipment and having a hole cut in the floor, so they merely have to stop over a cover, lift it off and drive away, a procedure that can be completed in moments. It’s a highly organised crime, and just like those in Hull, the criminals don’t care much for the potential victims who are suffering death, injury and damage to their vehicles as a result of their actions.

In China, where there is also an epidemic, the maximum penalty for manhole cover theft is the death sentence. In the build-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there were reports that more than 30 manhole covers were being stolen every day – when each one could collect £100, it’s no wonder.

Stealing drain and manhole covers isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has undergone a huge increase since the mid-00s when the price of ferrous scrap metals started to rise. To a criminal mind, manhole and grid covers are just like cash lying around, and as long as there are uninquisitive or collaborating scrap dealers, there has been an outlet for their ill-gotten drain covers. Ferrous metals have therefore become the new lead, which has been stolen from roofs for decades. While there could be legitimate reasons for selling scrap lead – builders putting a new roof on a house, for example – to sell grid and manhole covers can only be a criminal act, unless it’s a local authority or the Highways Agency doing the selling.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was an attempt to legislate the problem away. It included measures such as the requirement that scrap dealers do not pay for their goods in cash to make transactions more traceable, and that records are kept of all transactions and the names and addresses of sellers. While this might have put some criminals off, the story from Hull – and countless others around the country – proves that some people will still try their luck.

One solution has been to make manhole covers out of materials that have little or no scrap value, such as non-recyclable plastics. But this is not always an appropriate solution, particularly when the covers are for busy roads; it’s usual for covers on such hhighways to be group 4 (which can withstand 40 tonnes) or group 5 (60 tonnes). Another way of preventing theft is to use anti-theft covers, although nothing is truly immune to the actions of a determined thief.

As long as ferrous metal is valuable enough to risk a spell behind bars, and as long as there are unscrupulous scrap metal merchants willing to buy it, this crime will probably continue to exist. The best defence for the motorist is vigilance and timely reporting of missing covers – and alerting road users and pedestrians to the danger as soon as possible.