For the residents of a tiny village in Cambridgeshire, Thursdays have become a day to dread as thieves descend under the cover of darkness to steal copper phone lines, leaving hundreds of homes disconnected.
Barrington (population: 900) has become one of the worst casualties of a boom in metal prices that has fuelled a rise in thefts as organised gangs devise ever more audacious methods.
The Independent has learned that, in parts of the country, thieves posing as workmen are cloning BT vans to gain access to cables. Luke Beeson, BT’s head of security, said: “They’re coming tooled-up, wearing high-visibility jackets, setting up roadworks. We’ve even seen them putting our logo on the sides of the van.”
Barrington has been targeted eight times in the past year by thieves who dig up and slice cables, before attaching them to the back of cars and accelerating away. They can strip out several kilometres of copper, leaving homes without phone
or internet access. “If I were to set up my business now I’d seriously consider whether to base myself here,” says Shane Thornton, an engineering consultant in the village. “There are parts of Africa that have more reliable broadband than us.”
BT workers spend days replacing stolen cable, only for the criminals to return a few weeks later, almost always – and for reasons that remain a mystery – on a Thursday night. Residents joke that the only beneficiaries of the thefts are the area’s pubs to which gangs go for refreshments.
Thieves who have previously targeted the rail network are now looking elsewhere. BT’s network is reliant on over 120 million km of copper cable, much of it laid alongside rural roads.
In Manchester, the fire brigade is working with police after several cases in which thieves have set fire to cables to burn away the plastic insulation. They retreat while the fire brigade comes in, before retrieving the copper.
BT says faults on its network are up 30 per cent this year, mainly as a result of cable theft. The problem is fuelled by a boom in copper prices caused by increased demand in developing nations.
“It costs BT millions of pounds but the wider impact is the key thing for us,” said Mr Beeson. “We’ve seen incidents of coastguards and the backup circuits for air-traffic control affected as well as hospitals.”
In Barrington, Peter Alderson, 58, who runs the Post Office, is exasperated by the constant outages. “If we lose the phone line we can’t take credit cards or call suppliers,” he said. “Not only does it hurt the community at large, but we’re also often unable to make calls in an emergency.”
Mr Beeson says the only way to fight the crime is to regulate scrapyards, currently governed by legislation dating from 1964.
“At the moment you only have to register as a dealer and record names and address of sellers,” he said. “We want to see dealers forced to register, keep CCTV footage and police given the authority to search premises.
“Last year we recovered over two hundred tonnes of BT cable from UK scrap yards. If we can choke the market, then we can help shut it down.”