What’s so special about bunkers anyway? – a tentative answer from the RGS Cold War Bunkers sessions

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What’s so special about bunkers anyway?

That question came up yesterday, at the RGS 2014 conference’s day-long session on Cold War Bunkers. The question was actually, what’s so special about Cold War bunkers?, but widening it out opens a bigger provocation.

As I write I’m sitting in a cramped train compartment, my elbows intruding upon my neighbour as I clumsily type this. If she glances across in this artificially intimate space she will see that I’m now writing about her. I feel compelled to type quickly so that these words will scroll up out of view. But my point in mentioning my physical predicament in writing this is that here I’m in an unusually confined space, this is a place of singular purpose (conveyance), here special codes of embodiment and behaviour rule, and where necessarily I surrender to physical forces that I cannot control (pulling my body backwards at speed to Sheffield). My view from my window is fractional, my vision half blocked by labels warning me of deadly danger should I feel inclined to stick my head out of the window, or to engage with live rail and overhead wires, in each case should I proceed to instigate an escape from this capsule using the emergency hammer presented exquisitely in a glazed recess above my head. This portion of the carriage – with its contemplation of dangerous exceptional futures, and the need to script and physically enable them is oddly bunker-like, and yet if I proposed a conference session on train spaces I don’t think I’d get 18 high quality papers examining carriage-confinement from a variety of disciplines (geography, film, theatre, anthropology, history, archaeology, heritage, architecture and fine art) from the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Cuba, Germany and Switzerland.

So, why did I get them in reply to a call for papers on Cold War bunkers? Does this imply that there is something special about studying confinement, extremis, bodies and materiality in these concrete chambers?

Probably. It’s something that I need to unpack more, but here are my first thoughts on this important question, grouped for convenience (but not as a manifesto, other formulations and critiques are possible and welcome).

Bunkers as therapy

I find that often when I let slip my bunker-thing in conversation that first reactions are a mix of incredulity and distain, a why would you expose yourself to ridicule in spending time on such a perverse topic?  To which my stock reply is either it’s the universality of your distain that I want to understand, why do you regard it as unsuited to scrutiny? or to let them simply carry on talking, because usually – within a sentence or two – they’ve started telling me about their recollections of growing up in the nuclear angst of the 1980s, of relatives with some connection to war institutions or of  a room or shed at their home that – they wonder – might be a bunker. So, something’s there, just below the surface and in bunker-talk situations it comes tentatively to the surface.

The artists participating in the bunkers conference sessions (Kathrine Sandys, Matthew Flintham, Stephen Felingham and Louise K. Wilson) all acknowledged that there work was influenced by this sublimated, formative anxiety of youth (and yes, I realise that nuclear weapons are still as real as they ever where, but the cultural situation has changed, a specifically nuclear anxiety has faded from now, and become then). Nuclear bunkers, represent a there, at which to recover something that has gone (or at least changed) since then. Thus as ruins (intact or otherwise) the abandoned bunker becomes a site for evocative reflection on a war that never was, and end that never came. And yes, that refection is made from a place of safety. It is precisely because it is past that it is safe to ponder, and perhaps even to play, with that past. The bunker (each individually, and collectively in the networks and taskscapes that they comprise in aggregate) are a join-the-dots puzzle that can now be performed and whether as recovery, recuperation and/or recreation.

And within the conference room yesterday, there was a palpable shared sense of that familiar refrain (usually reached by paragraph three of the ‘let them talk’ scenario above) Phew, it’s not just me then. Frequently it felt like a group therapy session – a Bunkers Anonymous for those still haunted somehow by nuclear bunkers.

Bunker as place of work

But (and this but was possibly the most important point to emerge yesterday). This ‘bunker as post traumatic landscape’ angle (to adopt Amanda Crawley Jackson’s phrase) is not the only form of bunker signification that can be observed at work. It is not the only reason why people draw together, in thrall to the bunker.

This was exemplified by separate contributions from archaeologists Bob Clarke (University of Exeter) and Steven Leech (University of Manchester), and by contributions by Kevin Booth and Racheal Bowers of English Heritage. These places are often held in fond regard by those who once worked there. The reminiscences these bunker visitors are not about the psychic damage of having once worked with the rehearsal of world-ending. If there is trauma at all, it is that of a job, role, communal purpose having abruptly come to an end with waves of bunker decommissioning – and the standing down of the Royal Observer Corps, at the end of the Cold War and an attendant alienation effect (Clarke calls this ‘disenfranchisement’) caused by that abandonment of roles and practices that had given ROC members a  sense of purpose (and specifically that of duty and service) and a regular acquaintance with weekends of bunker dwelling camaraderie. As Steven Leech showed us, this network of identities lives on in the recursive ritual life observable at ad hoc ‘preservation’ sites, like a former RAF radar station now manned by ex-services personnel turned volunteer guides, in each stride, word and caress exhibiting their strong attachment to the knowledges, practices and artefacts of a once purposeful bunker.

Bunker as exceptional space

The artists, and also other speakers pointed to the special spatial and atmospheric properties of bunkers, with John Beck (University of Westminster) pointing to the irony of watching films about bunker confinements within similarly confined dark spaces – cinemas. Meanwhile Katherine Sandys (Rose Bruford College) explored the use of light and sound to subtly demark what would otherwise be the pitch black, non-spaces within bunkers. Louise K. Wilson took back to Orford Ness, a military site which has – in the footsteps of W.G. Sebald’s visit – achieved iconic (and some might say hackneyed) status in bunker and ruin writing. Louise pondered the pros and cons of this eternal return to the Suffolk shingle strip and constant re-meditation on the nature-reclaiming-ruins riff as it plays out upon this site and its Pagoda-like bomb fuse testing bunkers. How many ways are there to portray sea-salted air corroding military metal and concrete, and does it matter if methods are re-performed, are we too obsessed with ‘firsts’ and originality? Dutch architect Arno Geesink (Kraft Architectuur) then guided us through is exploration of Cold War structures in Arnhem, and of their novelty as forms, and the possibilities of their creative repurposing.

And the bunker is also a novel geopolitical place – the space, practices and purposes of the bunker rendering it characteristic of a space of exception, or heterotopia. Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge) showed how her studies of Cambridge’s bunkers had influenced subsequent performance work on the geopolitical performance of crisis decision making within confined, purely logistical space. Ian Klinke (University of Oxford), then picked up this point in his study of the West German Government’s bunker HQ, and its war game exercises there. Thus the bunker was presented as a place of unusual atmospheres, shapes and spatial arrangements. But it was also shown to materially embody distilled geopolitical goals and single purpose logistics, forming abject citadels of death and survival via mundane repeat performance of processual rehearsals within these redoubts.

Bunker as geopolitical bodies

Ian Klinke’s paper pointed to the internal and external political effects of the bunker – situating the bunker as a localisation of vital nodes of geopolitical systems, and in doing so brought forth from the inevitable focus upon the confined spaces and logistics at work there, a sense of the bunker as a place of bodily conditioning. This theme was also developed by Silvia Berger Ziauddin (University of Zurich) in her examination of the Swiss Government’s requirement that all domestic dwellings must have a basement bunker – a requirement still in force today. She pointed to the dual relationship of technical compliance with this physical directive, but with the widespread flouting of related commands seeking to condition citizen’s bodies and their weekly routines, rather than their buildings. These performative ordinances never managed to turn the Swiss into regular testers of their own bunkers, and despite such (unenforced) requirements for dry-runs and attentive upkeep of their shelters, a diverse range of cultural engagement (and non-engagement) with these ubiquitous bunkers ensued.

But bunkers come in all shapes and sizes, with markedly different degrees of visibility. In contrast to the Swiss government’s hollow exhortations seeking to prompt a public engagement with their domestic bunkers, state secrecy was the order of the day in UK Cold War – Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) highlighted the limits of their archival based attempts at researching the still closed to access Guardian Exchange complex beneath the streets of central Manchester. Here, the lingering effect of official secrecy and techno-bureaucratic exceptionalism deny any glimpse of this bunker or of those who worked there. Here, the bunker’s geopolitical bodies are those conditioned to be excluded from access to it, either physically or in terms of clear representation of it.   This theme was echoed in a number of papers via the notion of ‘hiding in plain site’ – that such bunkers (in terms of there sheer physical existence at least) are never hidden from view, yet somehow we learned not to notice them. Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art) shared with us his attempts at finding ways to mobilise peripheral vision as a way of bringing the half-noticed into view in his ROC post drawings. This contrasted interestingly with Gunnar Maus’ (University of Kiel) work to characterise public engagements in (the former) West Germany with Cold War remains. Maus showed how the same mundane bunker-objects (in his distributed local stores for demolition munitions) were the subject of signifying attention by a variety of communities of practice, with each took from that material the opportunity to construct different uses, and knowledge accumulating and circulating practices about these multiple bunkers – and whether as state heritage official, bunkerologist or geo-cacher. Yet still – for most passers-by, these structures remained unnoticed amidst the West German border’s roadways, bridges and forests.

Bunker materialities

Stephen Felmingham also showed us close up the mundane materiality of the ROC Post form as it was co-opted into his drawings, performed on-site in the bowels of these small dank chambers, soot and other residues purposively incorporated into his pictures. Elsewhere we zoomed out to a wider scale. Bunkers are places where form unapologetically follows function, and yet these monolithic structures, where visible above ground can take on mountain-like or monumental forms. Artist Matthew Flintham (University of Newcastle) took us – through lingering film treatment – to a vast concrete fort establishment in Norway, co-opting a group of children as guides to the surfaces, textures and scale of this now ruined structure – in doing so positioning this man-made mountain within its landscape, unsettling clear notions of where the bunker ends and ‘nature’ begins. This point was also brought to the fore in Maria Alejanda Perez’s (University of West Virginia) work on the revolutionary and military interest in cave complexes within Cuba during the Cold War, reminding us that many of the larger bunker complexes around the world are actually modified cave systems and/or former underground stone quarries. The seeming semantic gap between man-made and natural places of confinement and shelter is destabilised by such hybridisation, concrete and limestone are two variants of essentially the same matter.  Here stalactites – to be found emergent in both – come into play as linking devices, reminding us that underground structures are more unstable than their surface cousins – under attack constantly from water ingress from above, below and all around. These subterranean chambers defy the water which they have displaced from the surrounding earth, but that water seeks ways back in, afflicting the bunker and artefacts and people in it with dampness, mold and calcite formations, testifying to the particular dynamics of water led ruination faced by the bunker, as illustrated by the early fortunes of York ROC HQ bunker after it came into the hands of English Heritage, and the curators struggled not just with questions of authenticity, but also those of air quality. The underground bunker, then – stands in unique testimony to the limits (or at least the difficulties of) human colonisation of the ‘underworld’, yet also of its affinity with the universality of cave dwelling.

So, that’s what I’ve come up with so far. The question (what makes bunkers special) is still bouncing around in my head. There is more to be done on this, and no doubt it will influence the edited volume that we’re now planning as an output from this day spent peering into the bunker.


Neat graphs, underlying patterns: updating ‘Assets Under Attack’ to address the ‘double-hump’ in metal theft

Earlier this month I was invited to join a Canadian radio debate on CBC’s current affairs programme, The Current. I was to speak on the ‘international’ dimension of metal theft: both in terms of causes and policy responses around the world. My contribution would have drawn on my 2008 article Assets under attack: the dark side of the global recycling market (Bennett 2008a & b), but the feature was curtailed at the last minute, my international contribution axed and I was stood down, unneeded.

But the invitation had got me looking back at the ‘state of the world’ picture presented in my 2008 article and starting to update it. So, here I present some sketched findings – by way of an update to that 2008 picture.

Metal graphs

Shortly after my original paper was published the world hit the September 2008 financial crisis. The World economy faltered and metal prices (along with most other indices of economic health) took a tumble. It seemed that the metal price bubble had burst. I thus turned my attention to other projects, until last Autumn’s public furore about brass plaque thefts from war memorials here in the UK attracted my attention back to metal theft as an intriguing (and objectionable) phenomenon.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words – and in the case of metal theft this is particularly true. Here’s a graph from the London Metal Exchange showing the cash buyer price for copper between January 2004 and May 2012. The price is US$ per tonne.

[Graph from LME 2012]

The bubble I was writing about in early 2008 is the first three-peak mountain. The dip is the ‘credit crunch’. The (even higher) peak to the right is the current bubble. And it’s even higher than the (then) ‘highest ever’ that I was writing about in 2008.

The 2004-2012 fortunes, need to be seen in a longer-term context. Here, spread over a 20 year period the ‘hike’ of the past six years is even more marked.

[Graph from Quercia 2011]

Or, for those who are less pictorially inclined, here’s another way of presenting the message: since 2001 the price of copper has increased 500%.

My article addressed both copper and lead. If we look at the fate of the cash buyer price for lead we see a similar (but not identical) ‘double-hump’ for the same period. The difference is that the post-2008 recovery for lead is less aggressive (but still remarkably buoyant at a time of supposed once-in-a-lifetime World economic woes).

[Graph from LME 2012]

And what of the correlation of price to metal theft levels as glimpsed via consequent insurance claims resulting from it? Well, again the picture can do the talking here too (the data is from Ecclesiastical, the UK’s main insurer of church premises):

[Source: http://www.churchbuild.co.uk/2011/07/metal-theft-church-buildings/%5D

What I think we see in the 2007-08 phase is a clear correlation between the lead market price and  the rate of claims. But after 2008 the relationship is less clearly aligned – possibly indicating that either church security measures are now more effective and/or that the lower recovery of lead prices (compared to the recovery for copper) makes copper a more attractive element to target: that lead theft is becoming relatively less attractive. Alternatively it might indicate that insurers are better able to deter claims from victims of metal theft. Remember here that lead theft is focussed towards a more specific set of targets: primarily churches and schools, premises which are owned by relatively sophisticated and co-ordinated institutions, and served by a small number of ‘public sector’ focussed insurers.

But copper is far more ubiquitous as a building element – found (almost) everywhere as pipes and cabling. High profile campaigns have alerted the public (and legislators) to the infrastructural impact on the railways and power distribution networks, but even with these assets now (relatively speaking) better protected, there are still plenty of other ‘easy’ targets for mundane (but dangerous) copper theft.

A graph considering the claims/price relationship for copper for the post 2008 hump has recently been issued based on National Insurance Claims Fraud Bureau data on US copper theft related insurance claims.

[Source: http://www.supercircuits.com]

If we take insurance claims as a proxy for levels of copper theft from the built environment, a steady rise in claims, would suggest an underlying rise in metal theft (reflecting a price/crime relationship).

Metal markets

In my 2008 Article I explored the contribution of Chinese demand to driving the 2006-08 price hump (particularly as regards copper).  I also highlighted the role of the rising automotive market in the Indian sub-continent (lead being needed for car batteries). So, do these influences stand post-2008?

There is still little in the way of academic analysis devoted to this or any other aspect of the metal theft phenomenon. But an interim report in November 2011 by Pol-Primett, Metal theft: An emerging threat to Europe’s economic security? (Quercia 2012) helpfully draws together some of the available economic data on the state of the world copper supply market.

The world copper price reflects changes in the world economy – but also events and pressures within the copper industry itself. Thus the 2010 price spike was at least in part due to the effects of the Chilean earthquake in February 2010 and its disruption of copper mining in that region. For these reasons the future fate of copper prices is difficult to predict. But these factors (the world-economy generic and the copper industry specific) rejoin in the interaction of project finance markets, confidence to develop new extractive capacity and prospects of production expansion. With the finance markets drying up, it has become harder to bring more productive capacity on stream. Thus world copper mining production capacity was forecast to grow no more than 3% in 2011. Quoting from the International Copper Study Group (ICSG) Global Copper Scrap Report 2010  the Pol-Primett report also notes that:

“The discovery rate of large copper mines as Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia (300 kt-cu per year of mine capacity at least) is falling and the expected contributions of mine capacity expansions are expected mainly in small and not in big mines in production.” (14)

This should be contrasted with the relatively subdued world price of copper sustained during the period 1966 to 2004, which has been attributed by a number of studies to excessive global copper supply (in relation demand) due to vigorous expansion of copper mine capacity during that period.

In short, there is not much scope for a dramatic increase in global copper production for the foreseeable future, therefore copper prices are likely to remain high. And nothing has changed to alter the sobering quote, used in Assets Under Attack, that Chinese demand can but rise – for “currently the US consumes 50 pounds of copper per capita each year, while China is using only one pound.” (Goldworld, 2008)

This prediction of an ongoing contribution of Chinese developmental demand is backed by Egbert Tölle’s report for the European Commission on Natural resources, secondary raw materials and waste (Tölle 2007). The economic boom in China explains a third of the worldwide increase in the demand for raw materials. For example that China’s metal commodities imports have multiplied by a factor of 4 to 10 over the past decade”. And the world supply situation, according to Tölle, is further exacerbated by the fact that China restricts the export of raw materials, including taxes between 10 and 15 percent on the export of copper of various forms.

It is perhaps not surprising, given that China’s demand is 1 million tonnes greater than its home-produced copper supply, that it would seek to keep as much of that indigenous copper as possible, in order to meet the need for – in particular – a rapidly increasing demand for automotive, electronic goods, and electrical wiring.

The net result of the world suddenly finding itself with a supply/demand imbalance and the resurgence of world copper prices not seen since the early 1960s, is that the shortfall in ‘virgin’ copper triggered an increased focus upon secondary sources – i.e. recycling copper already in the man-made environment. This, in turn, has triggered criminals to pillage copper, and other metals, from the built environment before they have actually reached the end of their current working life.

My concern here is with metal prices and their relationship to metal theft. But it is interesting appreciate that many commodities are also soaring in price. The following graph caught my attention in this regard:


Looking at this graph I was tempted to add a flippant comment to the effect that “it helps explain why we are not seeing a wave of cattle rustling”, but a few moments thought reminded me that actually we have seen a resurgence of rustling in recent years. In the UK theft of sheep are – apparently – on the increase. An article in the Daily Mirror reported that 30,000 sheep had been stolen in the UK in the first eight months of 2011, at an estimated cost of £5 Million (White 2011). The logistics of stealing a herd of sheep implies that this is not an opportunistic crime, but rather one of relatively sophisticated gangs, aware of the value of these assets as commodities, and having confidence in an ability to integrate these ‘raw materials’ back into the legitimate consumption chain via willing production interfaces (in the case of sheep: abattoirs, in the case of metal theft: scrap yards). The inherent ‘rationality’ is attested to by an NFU Mutual representative interviewed by the Daily Mirror, who characterised the evolution of ‘stealing from farms’ thus:

“In the last decade, ­livestock rustling has been at historically low levels, while farm thieves concentrated on stealing quad bikes, tractors and power tools. High meat prices and improved security appear to be leading to a resurgence in livestock rustling.”

Crimes like metal theft (and sheep rustling) are anomalous. They lack the ‘glamour’ of what we might think of traditionally as either ‘organised’ crime or ‘international’ crime, yet they are show by the above to be very much a reflection of truly global systems, and whilst each event of theft may be localized in its event-space, and low value in terms of the assets taken, aggregated to national and international level (and having regard to the disproportionate cost caused by damage and disruption to infrastructure in the case of metal theft) they are truly significant, for metal theft is now estimated to cost the UK a staggering £770million p.a. (HoC 2012).

Too neat?

By background and inclination I’m a qualitative researcher. This means that I prefer the realm of words, to that of numbers. But I find that I am in awe of the graphical presentation of these statistics. I can understand a picture better than a calculation of standard deviation or some other numerical way of portraying what the graph effortlessly shows me. I also have a healthy distrust for any situation that claims to portray reality neatly. My research training told me that most cause and effect relationships I would ever encounter in social research would be spurious. Social reality is too complex (and messy) to capture in numbers and on charts. So, looking at the graphs presented here I find myself captivated by their neatness, the closeness of the correlation between apparent ‘causes’ and ‘effects’. I know these parallel lines don’t prove causation – but in my gut it all feels incontrovertible. Early on in Assets Under Attack I quoted The British Transport Police’s Deputy Chief Constable, who interviewed in The Guardian in May 2007 had stated:

“You have only got to look at the rising copper price on the metal market and the theft of copper matches that rise almost entirely.”

It still seems too neat – but nothing I’ve found contradicts this ‘common sense’ reaction to the data. But, I’m not a statistician or an empirical criminologist (I’m just an environmental lawyer cum urban geographer cum many other things). So, it was reassuring to see the appearance of a ‘proper’ study by some statistically inclined quantitative researchers at the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, at University College, London. In their study of the relationship between levels of railway cable theft and copper price movements, Sidebottom et al (2011) found a sober, statistically reliable, correlation between these two variables. So, there is now sound ‘science’ confirming what the more qualitatively inclined have ‘felt’ all along. The correspondence between theft and price is genuine.

And armed with that correlation, we can shed interpretative light on the risky human reality of the local events of plunder. For it, for example, helps to explain why a scavenger stands hacking at a section of railway signalling cable, risking his life and the comfort of many thousands travelling on the line, somewhere in remote barren depths of South Yorkshire. It can explain an individual’s actions by reference to sweeping abstract global forces and materialities, expressed through the lure of turning copper into cash in a black economy transaction later that evening. Not many areas of research into the built environment require such lurches of scale in the interpretative process.


Bennett, L. (2008a) ‘Assets Under Attack: metal theft, the built environment and the dark side of the global recycling market’, Environmental Law & Management, 20 (4), 176-188. Available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/683/

Bennett, L. (2008b) ‘Metal theft – anatomy of a resource crime’ (unpublished) companion paper to ‘Assets Under Attack’. Available at http://shura.shu.ac.uk/4125/

Goldworld (2008) Copper fundamentals still bullish – an investment report, at www.goldworld.com

HoC (2012) Metal Theft – Commons Library Note, House of Commons: London http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06150

LME (2012) London Metals Exchange website: http://www.lme.com/non-ferrous/index.asp

Quercia, P. et al (2011) Metal theft: An emerging threat to Europe’s economic security? Pol-Primett: http://www.agenforitalia.it/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=28:pol-primett&catid=2:projects

Tölle, E. (2007) Ad hoc group 10 Natural resources, secondary raw materials and waste, European Commission, Enterprise http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/sustainable-business/files/environment/hlg/june_07/e_toelle_en.pdf

Sidebottom, A. et al (2011) ‘Theft in Price-Volatile Markets: On the relationship between copper price and copper theft’ Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 48 (3), 396-418.

White, S. (2011)Dramatic rise in sheep rustling costing farmers £5million a year’, The Daily Mirror, 3 October  http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/dramatic-rise-in-sheep-rustling-costing-82837



What is infrastructure made of? – metal theft, society and its hard and soft systems

‘Infrastructure’ is a buzz word that gets a heavy usage in public policy these days. But would we all agree on what it actually means?

A couple of tweets received this morning got me thinking about this. One tweet was from @Metal_Watch and declared: “It’s time they made an offence of ‘possession of infrastructural metal without written authority from its lawful owner’”. Whilst the other tweet asserted that that streets ‘are no longer regarded as places’ by their local communities.

In response to the first tweet the lawyer in me pondered how – in practice – an ‘infrastructural’ point of origin could be attributed to any particular cache of pillaged metal. One of the core problems with tackling metal theft is the generic nature of these materials once stripped from the built environment. The only exceptions may be the distinctiveness of rail and high voltage transmission electricity cables. Everything else has that ‘could have come from many sources’ character that makes re-integration of such material back into the resource chain so easy (and therefore lucrative).

But what also struck me is the implicit suggestion that theft of metal from infrastructure is somehow of different character (severity?) to theft of metal from ‘elsewhere’. I share this gut feeling – but I’m not sure why, where the ‘logic’ of that feeling actually leads and/or whether everyone with that feeling would aspire towards the same conclusion.

Kevin Whiteacre made a good point in a blog on www.metaltheft.net last year: that if we watch how people respond to metal theft we see how people use classic prejudices and political positions to make sense of the crime wave. Whiteacre points out that whilst some may see in metal theft a degenerative legacy born of statism (and ultimately communism) others see it as the acquisitive consequence of neo-liberal individualism. Thus the bogeyman is whoever you usually turn to.

And I wonder whether you might get a similar divergence if you asked such people to list what ‘infrastructure’ means to them (and I’m particularly influenced by Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty here: a ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’). For some might foreground what we might call the ‘infrastructure of doing’ (power, transport and communications facilities that enable individuals to enact their will upon the world) whilst others might instead equate infrastructure with an ‘infrastructure of protection’ in which socialised facilities of public benefit are foregrounded (criminal justice system, schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries). Another way to draw this distinction would be between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure. Soft infrastructure extends out to including all institutions and processes necessary for the effective functioning of society. Hard infrastructure is confined to networks of fixed assets that convey information or things.

We see prominent examples of pillage from both hard and soft infrastructure in contemporary metal theft and in each case calls for ‘something to be done’ – but would all of these count as ‘infrastructure’ so far as the law makers might be concerned? I suspect not. Recent UK Governments have tended to equate infrastructure with facilitating economic growth, thus confining the term to ‘hard’ infrastructure – and have shied away from any wider formulation of the term, one that might unwittingly open a door to acknowledging a wider  embodiment of ‘infrastructure’ underlying modern society. The entirety (hard plus soft infrastructure) does though sometimes get a sideways look-in in public policy through resilience (formerly known as civil defence or civil contingency) planning.

It is clear that in public policy usage the term ‘infrastructure’ is thought of in terms of the ‘infrastructure of doing’. It is about communication, mobilities, circulation of power – all in order that others are enabled to ‘do’. Thus the UK National Infrastructure Plan (HM Treasury 2011) states that: “Safe, reliable and efficient infrastructure networks form the backbone of every modern economy” (p13) and then emphasises this ‘economic’ reading of infrastructure with the following: “Evidence shows that investing in economic infrastructure is important for growth and that, for example, building better transport links and energy generation capacity can have a stronger positive effect on GDP per capita than other forms of investment”.

According to Lewis (2008) ‘infrastructure’ is a term of fairly recent vintage and one originally coined in France as a railway engineering term, thereafter finding an Anglo-Saxon twentieth century military usage (referring to permanent installations as a basis for military operations). In more recent usage the expression has come to be equated with a country’s economic foundations. For example, here in the UK, the Planning Act 2008 set up the short lived Infrastructure Planning Commission to have a national remit for authorising ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’, and these are defined by list to include power, transport hub, water and waste utility physical projects (section 14) but the Act didn’t itself define ‘infrastructure’. As of 1 April 2012 the Commission has been formally abolished pursuant to the Localism Act 2012. But that Act (and other current coalition Government initiatives) still shows a foregrounding of – and desire to promote – ‘hard’ (and masculine?) infrastructure.

The point that I’m hovering over here is that infrastructure is currently about the economy rather than about society. It is resolutely about the term’s ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’ usage. Sure, the two are not entirely indivisible, but to legislate in a way that foregrounds economic priorities is essentially a political decision that reveals something about contemporary priorities.

The current coalition government can hardly be labelled as Keynesian. Therefore its commitment to ‘pump-prime’ a private sector led economic recovery via certain infrastructure investment is a step that requires tight control over what legal definitions may come to be attributed to ‘infrastructure’ (and its protection alongside its enhancement), for it is only a fine definitional line whereby otherwise a markedly different spectre might unwittingly be unleashed were the full – soft – roots and branches of society’s infrastructure to be acknowledged.

I would like the scourge of metal theft to be addressed in terms of its impact on both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure. I am not denying that the power and rail systems need particular protective focus (and here see my recent blog on railway imperatives: http://wp.me/p2dJQ2-6K). But, for me, infrastructure cannot be a matter of ‘take and not give’ by its users. Infrastructure and community are intertwined. That is why it struck me as sad that the second tweet referred to at the start suggested that people don’t see the roads as part of their sense of place. Accordingly to at least one translation of Socrates, the ancient Greek acknowledged this interconnectedness over 2000 years ago:

“In order to function at all, a person needs the facilities and arrangements available from community, security, institutions, and economic goods, and that these can only be available when individuals support the concept of community and the responsibilities that it entails. Chief among these responsibilities is the provision of infrastructure and the services it provides.” (quoted in Fertis & Fertis, 1998)


Berlin, I (1958) ‘Two concepts of liberty’ essay at http://www.cas.umt.edu/phil/faculty/walton/Berlin2Concepts.pdf

Fertis G.F. & Fertis, A. (1998) Evolutions of Infrastructure: 15,000 years of history, Vantage Press

HM Treasury (2011) National Infrastructure Plan 2011 at http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/national_infrastructure_plan2011.htm

Lewis, S. (1998) ‘The etymology of infrastructure and the infrastructure of the internet’ available at http://hakpaksak.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/the-etymology-of-infrastructure-and-the-infrastructure-of-the-internet/


Riding the ripples: railway suicides and the infrastructural imperative

“The metropolitan type…creates a protective organ for itself against the profound disruption with which the fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it.” (in Leach 1997: 70)

So wrote Georg Simmel in a 1903 essay considering the strategies by which the human individual defends himself against the domineering (and numbing) effects of urban living and its systems. But what if we turn this on its head and consider the strategies by which such systems adjust to individual human interventions which may threaten to disrupt their processes?

In this essay I will try to explore this systemic adaptation in the context of railway suicide events.

Is it possible to write respectfully about the infrastructural impact of railway suicides?

I hope so. The following is not intended as insensitive. I’m heartened that the Samaritans, the UK’s suicide counselling charity urges writers to engage with suicide and break down its taboo, and that the subject is also an established fertile ground for medically inclined researchers (Samaritans 2008).

But linking railway suicide and its knock-on logistical and infrastructural effects risks the opprobrium incurred by contrarian journalist, Jeremy Clarkson who declared on BBC TV’s The One Show last December that those who seek to end their lives via railway suicide are ‘selfish’ due to the ensuing travel disruption, and the distress caused to those who must witness and deal with the aftermath of such incidents.

Clarkson’s comment was first made during the same TV appearance on in which he also remarked that strikers engaged in the recent UK public sector pensions protest strike should be shot in front of their families, as punishment for the disruption caused by their strike action to public services. Whilst Clarkson’s strikers comment was to ultimately cause greater public outcry, it was actually his comment on suicide that triggered an instinctive on-air apology to viewers by the presenter.

In reaction the Samaritan’s Chief Executive attacked Clarkson’s comment, as revealing his ignorance about research into the motivations of those who seek to end their lives. She pointed to research that many who attempt suicide, do so in the belief that their families (and the world in general) will be better off without them – and that therefore the act may be seen by the perpetrator as self-less rather than selfish (Coleman, 2011). But Clarkson’s comment cannot be fully defeated by such research on motive – for his comment was about the effect of the suicide, the consequential disruption caused to the railway network in the aftermath of the incident. And this effect does exist, even though we may struggle to find a comfortable way to talk about it.

The annual cost to the network of the railway suicide related disruption is £50 Million, with around 200 railway suicides per year (Samaritans 2011). A crude apportionment therefore suggests that each suicide ‘costs’ the network £250,000 (plus the non-financial emotional cost to those touched by suicide events). But it is unclear how the £50 million is made up – does it include ‘security’ costs? Is it purely response and aftermath of actual incidents? What of near-misses? And how far does the calculation trace the knock-on effects, the ripples into the lives and activities of the affected travellers?

Railway suicides and infrastructural ripples

This essay was prompted by my experience of a recent journey from Sheffield to Devon. Our train arrived at Sheffield on time – but was two carriages short. The guard soon explained that this was a hastily despatched replacement train – the full length train having been halted earlier between Darlington and York ‘due to a fatality.’ Indeed having subsequently looked into the incident this portion of the line was closed to all traffic for a period to enable physical and forensic response to the incident.

In the crowded journey that ensued, it was interesting to listen in to how, over the course of our four hour journey, successive train crews and the ebb and flow of passengers joining and leaving the service made sense of the train’s (slight) delay, its overcrowding and cancellation of seat reservations. In ‘passing on’ the story of this journey to new arrivals as the journey progressed, passengers dispensed with the carefully framed phrases of the guard and increasingly confidently announced – matter of factly –  to their new companions that the travel problems were due to a suicide, before moving on to trade stories of consequential disruption to onwards connections.

The passengers’ succinct discourse upon the cause of this journey’s character saw language attempting to bridge the humanitarian and the logistically frustrated. Here were people with disrupted journeys, missed connections, no seats trying to be both respectful to the suicide – in abstract and increasingly remotely –but also emoting against their predicament (and in a circumstance that blocked off the easy option of railing against the train operator).

This got me thinking about the suicide’s ripple effect. The journey transmitted the very local, and very personal, fatal event in North Yorkshire down the backbone of the country, such that it could reverberate 300 miles away via missed connections in Plymouth. It also amplified the event in terms of the cast, the number of people involved. As travel plans were re-jigged, these ripples played out across a railway-day, the system’s equilibrium only being restored following the ‘down-time’ of the night.

Yet, as with ripples on a pond the energy of the wave reduced as it fanned out. By mid route, most passengers had accommodated to their discomfort in this shorter-than-normal train. The suicide as root-cause became an abstract passing comment. The suicide event saw a life converted into a message on the line, but a message quickly attenuated by the system that it had caused some momentary perturbation to. The railway system transmitted the event, but in a way that stripped, normalised and ultimately absorbed it.

To underscore my point, I’d like to contrast these observed  ripples-at- a-distance with a depiction of the ripples at a point closer to a similar event (but still not actually present there). My example is an account of the spread along the carriage line of the news of MP William Huskisson’s fatal trackside contact with Stephenson’s Rocket as recounted by a passenger one carriage away from the event, at the 1830 opening ceremony of the Liverpool to Manchester line:

“Presently a hundred voices were heard exclaiming that Mr Huskisson was killed; the confusion that ensued…the calling out from carriage to carriage to ascertain the truth, the contrary reports which were sent back to us, the hundred questions eagerly uttered at once, and the repeated and urgent demands for surgical assistance, created a sudden turmoil that was quite sickening.” (quoted in Garfield 2002: 157-158)

I have no reason to doubt that even in today’s numbed world, such ripples would be similarly felt by those at or near to the event itself (although I do share Simmel’s general concerns about the numbing effect of metropolitan life – the ‘death of affect’ as J.G. Ballard termed it, the rise of a pervasive ‘ambivalence’ theorised in similar terms by Zygmunt Bauman). But, add 300 miles (and the time taken to travel on that distance) and voices become more muted, and themes more fractured, as the event fades in its visceral specificity.

The infrastructural imperative

Watching this ripple-fade effect at a vantage point remote from the suicide event itself, left me wondering whether this muting effect is inevitable, necessary and/or appropriate. I have no clear answer, other than a managerial gut feel that there is a systems logic (a homeostatic effect) at work here, via a playing out of a utilitarian moral equation – that the ‘train on-time’ benefits for infrastructure users (small for each person, but large in aggregate across an entire journey’s user-population) and the enormity of the suicide event for those (in relative terms, few) emotionally or physically proximate to it, interact and ultimately resolve to produces plot points at which the extra-ordinary domain of the suicide event must progressively yield to the mass transit imperative. I’m left thinking that it is inevitable that people treat the event in an increasingly abstract and dispassionate way as time and distance work there attenuation effects such that the system (the rail network) and its users strive to restore equilibrium as quickly – and as respectfully – as possible.

Clarkson advocated that trains involved in suicide incidents should continue their journey as soon as the line itself was physically cleared (and he graphically declared himself unconcerned with the fate of matter beyond the track: see Mirror, 2011), and I recall a BBC documentary last year on an Indian railway upon which fatalities appeared an almost daily occurrence, and a dispassionate ‘clear the track and carry straight on’ ethos appeared very much to the fore. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, but accept that the system must carry on and maintain equilibrium.

But where should the precise point of balance be struck? How much delay is respectful? How much is a careful causal, forensic site analysis worth? How utilitarian should the calculation of the imperatives of continuation be? How much should travellers pay towards addressing suicide and other incursions to the railway network? All are questions with no right answer – yet making no decision upon them is not an option. The UK approach represents a set of operational and policy decisions, embodying explicit and implicit judgments about how the individual vs system rights and benefits can best be balanced. It is one balance-point, but as the Indian example shows (and as Clarkson contends), it is not the only possible balance-point.

Countering railway incursions

Simmel wrote in his essay of the strategies developed and deployed by the individual to resist being “levelled, swallowed up in the socio-technological mechanism” (70). This Simmel quote can also be flipped, and applied to the railway system’s own defence against the incursive acts of the human individual, and whether as metal thief, urban explorer or potential suicide.

Railway intrusion incidents and fears contributed greatly to the evolution of both railway safety legislation and occupiers’ liability jurisprudence during the twentieth century (on the latter see Bennett 2011). On the policy side, the House of Commons Transport Committee’s recent recommendation of a specific new offence of trespass upon railway property (prompted by rail cable metal theft);  the earmarking of railways as ‘critical national infrastructure’ (e.g. by CPNI) ; and, at EU-wide level, the major collaborative RESTRAIL (REduction of Suicides and Trespasses on RAILway property) research and best-practice promoting project which commenced in 2011 (www.restrail.eu) are all examples of a heightened current focus upon defending railway infrastructure against incursions and their ripple effects.

And there are some signs that this heightened focus may be bearing fruit in relation to suicide related railway incursions. In 2010 Network Rail announced its £5 million partnership with the Samaritans aimed at reducing railway suicides by 20% by 2015 via a programme of public awareness and ‘front line’ staff training and support (Network Rail 2011). Review of the first year of the programme suggested that the programme had contributed towards the 11% fall in the UK rail suicide rate reported in the Railway Safety & Standards Board’s official data (Samaritans 2011) – although it should be noted that the baseline year (2009/10) was 13% higher than the nine year average presented in RSSB 2010, so any conclusions on the ‘success’ rate of such programmes have to be tentative at this time.

Bennett, L. (2011) Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability. International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 3 (2), 126-145 (Also see draft available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2862/ )

Coleman, J. (2011) “Backlash against Jeremy Clarkson after he calls railway track suicides ‘selfish’” The Guardian, 3 December. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/dec/03/jeremy-clarkson-people-trains-selfish

CPNI (n.d.) Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure website: http://www.cpni.gov.uk/about/cni/

Daily Mirror (2011) “Jeremy Clarkson blasted for ‘selfish’ train suicide comments”, Daily Mirror, 3 December. Available at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/jeremy-clarkson-blasted-for-selfish-train-280159

Garfield, S. (2002) The Last Journey of William Huskisson, Faber & Faber: London.

Network Rail (2011) Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd Annual Reports & Accounts 2011, Network Rail: London.

Railway Safety & Standards Board (2010) Annual Safety Performance Report 2009-10: a reference guide to safety trends on GB railways, RSSB: London. Available at: www.rssb.co.uk.

Samaritans (2008) Media Guidelines for reporting suicide and self harm, Samaritans: Ewell. Available at www.samaritans.org.

Samaritans (2011) Reducing suicides on the railways Samaritans’ partnership with Network Rail – Media Briefing, available at: www.samaritans.org.

Simmel, G. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in Leach, N. (ed) (1997) Rethinking Architecture – a reader in cultural theory, Routledge:  Abingdon.

NB:  The Samaritans’ 24/7 UK helpline for anyone contemplating suicide or self-harm is: 08457 909090 and via email at jo@samaritans.org

Scuffed and scratched – reflections on building small worlds

There’s a heart wrenching dinner table scene in Close Encounters of Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977), that, in this piece, I will use to link climbing and model railway enthusiasts via various philosophers who have never written about either hobby. Link to video clip

In the scene that I’m thinking of, Richard Dreyfuss’ character sits down at home to eat a regular family meal. Absent mindedly he starts to play with his food, scrapping and exploring the mashed potato as his family members look on with increasing concern. His plate-sculpting becomes fervour, an intense concentration taking over his face. A mash-formed Mesa (a flat topped desert mountain) starts to take appear on his plate. Family members start to cry. Dreyfuss looks up, in teary explanation imploring them to understand, “this means something…”

In this short piece I’m going to look at the intense, tunnel-vision characteristic of moments of deep immersion in a hobby practice. I will touch on climbing and then spend longer on model railway world-building.

I read an interesting essay yesterday by Krein (2010) connecting climbing to the Stoic concept of freedom. Krein persuasively argues that the ‘freedom’ that climbers claim to experience whilst confined on a mountainside within the deadly proposition of a sheer rocky terrain, is a ‘freedom’ that can only be understood in the sense known to the Stoics (ancient Greek philosophers). Invoking Chrysippus, Krein concludes “one may achieve freedom by climbing in accord with the mountain”(18). What he means is that to align yourself with the physical circumstances of the mountain – to ‘work with the grain’ rather than against it – will enable the climber to excel in his chosen endeavour. And that to excel in that field requires that the climber focus down into that fraction of the world. His or her survival depends on concentrating on the rock, inch by inch, and blocking out the (potentially fatal) distractions of the wider world. Thus the climber’s tunnel vision and total focus is essential.

Dreyfuss’ character is building a mountain. But he’s not practising for an ascent. He’s a modeller, forced by extra terrestrial circumstances to physically enact the same flat-topped mountain in any available materials that will allow him to ‘work-out’ this compulsion. That brings me to model railways.

Just over a year ago I spent an intense two months working through something similar. No UFOs were involved and the ‘moment’ passed, and I can now look back on it with detachment. But at the time it came close to similar dinner-table tensions over the tunnel-vision that had temporarily overcome me. It all started with one of my kids deciding to spend some Christmas money on a model train set. We trekked off to Argos and got one (half price in the sales). He quickly lost interest in it. A train going round in a circle was pretty dull. So, I thought we could enhance it by building a scene for it – and getting some more track.

That was the point at which this tipped over into ‘Dad’s project’. The train set soon disappeared into the cellar, mounted on an ever-larger board and with an increasing elaborate track layout. I bought a couple more (fairly) cheap sale sets and became fixated on solving the challenge of how to fit together three identical oval tracks onto the same board footprint. The answer that eventually appeared to me late one evening was a system of ramps, tunnels and points. The challenge was like a jigsaw – to find a way of using every (mostly curved) piece. But one I’d solved that infrastructural problem there was still little joy in actually running trains on the network. So, I figured it must be because the layout needed land forming and the addition of buildings and scenery to make it a ‘proper’ world. And that’s when I got really lost. I discovered a sub-cultural world of cardboard and print-your-own buildings. The trains and their tracks became a distant memory as I spent every spare (and many not-spare) moments frantically building a fragment of an industrial town: mills, breweries, workers terraces, docks, canal, LPG storage etc. All my latent industrial archaeology and urban exploration urges became channelled into building my own gritty (and slightly grotty) world. I found that armed with my scanner and colour printer I could scratch build my own grimy industrial mill creations.

There is a focus within the railway model building fraternity on the authenticity of dirt, and signs of use-over-time. Nothing should look pristine. Items should be scuffed, in order to look ‘real’. Model paints bear this out in their names: ‘rust’, ‘dirty black’, ‘engineer’s grey’, ‘coach roof off white’. And model shops sell packets of dirt to sprinkle liberally upon these worlds (I preferred cutting out the middle man and applied real dirt: sawdust, sand, earth, ashes). There are also weird warpings of scale. Twigs become trees, moss clumps become bushes, rocks become mountains. Again, these materials can be bought at considerable expense. I just raided my garden. From the world I made a smaller world.

With characteristic French obliqueness, Gaston Bachelard, as part of his phenomenology of intimate places, wrote of the urge to create worlds in miniature:

“Minature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness; it allows us to be world conscious at slight risk. And how restful this exercise on a dominated world can be! For minature rests us without ever putting us to sleep. Here the imagination is both vigilant and content.”(1964: 161)

Bachelard characterises the miniature world as one which is capable of being dominated by the maker’s command or viewer’s gaze, as distinct from the big, complex messy ‘real’ world of daily life. Here we can link to Michel de Certeau’s (1984) conceptualisation of the two perceptual levels at which a city may be known. De Certeau opens his essay, ‘Walking in the city’ with the vision of a spectator “seeing Manhatten from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre…its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into texturology…” (91). At this height, a degree of abstraction kicks in which filters out the infinite complexity of that world as formed, lived and perceived at street level.

Puff (2010) makes a similar point – this time specifically about city models:

“Models executed to scale make urban space experiential in a particular fashion. Unlike actual cities, models are devoid of human life. Models show the city as urbs, or built environment, rather than as civitas, or urban community…space as expressed in urban models typically drowns out the multitude of societal relations encoded in actual cityscapes…devoid of human interaction and social signification, the city model presents itself as an instrument.” (256)

Puff draws a distinction between semi-abstract city models of the master planner and dioramas: models composed as three dimensional scenes, which may well feature human figures and aim to narrate  stories of social interaction. Railway world models, at their best, can achieve diorama status and portray a social world (albeit a selected, frozen, static one). Looking at the elaborate railway model worlds that have been created by true aficionados via a near lifetime’s effort we can see all kinds of signification (of the maker-god’s direction). A completed railway scene is likely to be saturated in nostalgia, a yearning for a previous age – the ‘glorious’ age of steam and coal, or (in the apparent styling of younger protagonists), a gritty end-of-modernism, 1980s tired, greying urbanism. By comparison there are few modellers building truly contemporary depictions of railway worlds. In short, each railway scene maker’s composition will shout out their take on the world.

My railway mania passed as suddenly as it had arrived. I realised that I simply didn’t have enough spare time in my life to finish building my under the stairs mini-world (and that the time and energy spent so far was draining my real life credit balance both financially and in terms of family goodwill). I closed my cellar door, and my part-made world lies abandoned there. I can still marvel at those who stick with it, but it’s not the world for me. Building and running worlds is too demanding…

Bachelard, G. (1964) The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press: Boston

De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: London.

Puff, H. (2010) ‘Ruins as models: displaying destruction in Postwar Germany’ in Hell, J. & Schönle, A. (eds) Ruins of Modernity, Duke University Press: London

Krein, K. (2010) ‘Climbing and the Stoic conception of freedom’ in Schmid, S.E. (ed) Climbing: philosophy for everyone, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.



Metal theft & memory theft – valuing sentiment in punishing war memorial attacks

In my recent blog on metal theft [link] I argued that metal theft sees the ascendancy of ‘exchange value’ over ‘use value’. By this analysis an artefact comes to be seen as a composite of its raw materials and their respective commodity values, rather than as a stable and purposeful assemblage of materials, a ‘thing in itself’ with a functional utility.

In what follows I will briefly summarise recent UK steps towards legislating to tackle metal theft and then focus on an additional type of ‘value’ that can be said to attach to some artefacts, namely their embodied emotional – or ‘sentimental’ value. Often in everyday usage the term ‘sentimental’ is used in a pejorative sense. But that is not how I wish to use that term here. Instead – as cultural anthropologists like Miller (2008) have done for decades – I wish to focus upon the value of the symbolic and emotional life of things and consider the extent to which punishment of metal thieves can take account of that form of value (and consequent destruction or de-valuing of it via stealing and ‘melting down’ such treasured items).

I have in mind here war memorial plaques – for much of the articles stolen by metal thieves are mundane – but in their own terms important – infrastructure. Their forced removal causes physical damage and disturbance to social and economic life, but these are items rarely the focus of emotional investment and symbolic significance. War memorial plaques are different, and recent media coverage has focussed in particular upon metal theft’s impact of this aspect of emotional heritage and of the importance of defending them against this latest threat to their survival (see for example Ashley 2004 and the In Memoriam 2014 (2012) project).

The current position on anti-metal theft legislating in the UK

In January 2012 the UK Parliament rejected a Private Members’ Bill – the ‘Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill’ – promoted by Labour MP Graham Jones (Jones 2012). This Bill, if enacted, would have imposed a cashless system for scrap metal trading, required evidence of identity to be produced by persons delivering scrap to a merchant and increased enforcement powers against scrap metal yards.

Jones viewed the Government’s decision not to back his Bill as symptomatic of:

” a split in the government between Home Office ministers who want action and ideologues in BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) who think that stopping the theft of war memorials is somehow ‘damaging red tape'” (Angel, 2012)

Without Government support Jones’ Bill now has no realistic prospect of being enacted. In the aftermath of its effective ‘defeat’ the UK Government (who chose not to support the Bill) announced that they would in due course bring forward their own proposals for tackling metal theft. On 26 January 2012 Home Secretary Teresa May announced that the Government’s own forthcoming measures to tackle the £770 million p.a. estimated cost of metal theft to the UK economy (Angel 2012) would include transition towards a cashless system, plus ‘significant increase’ in the fines that can be imposed upon metal thieves (Home Office 2012).  In a ministerial statement (May 2012) the Home Secretary indicated that these provisions would be enacted by making amendments to the Government’s own Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently before Parliament. In November 2011, the UK Government also set up a metal theft task force, committing £5 million of funding to this initiative as part of its ‘National Infrastructure Plan’ (HM Treasury 2011). The Home Secretary appeared to have overcome the ideological struggles alluded to by Jones, as she declared that:

“The Government considers that legislation is the only sustainable, long-term solution to the growing menace of metal theft. There is an urgent need to make stealing metal less attractive to criminals, and tackling the stolen metal market will act as a significant deterrent.”

She also indicated that further measures may be introduced in due course. And, given its strategic high profile, we might wonder whether such measures may include some of the additional steps recommended by the Transport Select Committee’s January 2012 report on the impact of cable theft upon the nation’s rail infrastructure (House of Commons 2012):

  • Increase the powers of the British Transport Police to investigate scrap yards
  • Introduce a new offence of aggravated trespass on the railway (trespass is not generally a criminal offence in the UK)
  • Requiring Network Rail (the national rail infrastructure owner) to re-double efforts to investigate and develop measures to make railway cable more difficult to steal.

Punishing theft of sentimental value

It is unclear from the Government’s recent statement whether the tougher approach to sentencing will include any specific augmentation to single out war memorial theft as particularly odious.

Whilst we await this proposed package of measures we might wish to explore existing powers of punishment. Debate has focussed upon the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and the low maximum fines imposable upon scrap yard operators. However, we should not forget that pillaging metal from the built environment is theft, an offence in its own right under the Theft Act 1968 (and it may also be criminal damage under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971). Penalty maxima under these Acts are far less token then those under the 1964 Act.

Taking punishment down this avenue may achieve higher penalties (and in theory at least) greater deterrence of metal thieves (although clearly a market reduction approach focussed on the networks by which this material is ‘fenced’ into the recycling markets is still needed).

In addition, existing sentencing guidelines could be used specifically in relation to war memorial plaque theft (and perhaps also the theft of metal works of art). The sentencing guidelines issued by the Sentencing  Council in December 2008 apply to all offences committed on or after 5 January 2009, and every court is required to have regard to them. The guidelines are set out in a number of related publications – and it is the guidelines for Theft and Burglary in a building other than a dwelling- Definitive Guideline (Sentencing Council 2008) that I have in mind here. Under general sentencing principles a court is required to have regard to the ‘seriousness’ of the offence – and in doing so to identify and then weigh up ‘mitigating’ and ‘aggravating’ factors. The sentencing guidelines direct courts on how they should undertake this ‘weighing up’ process and what factors should be considered as relevant. Paragraph 12 of the guidelines tells us that the “high value” of the stolen artefact is a relevant aggrevating factor and that sentimental value is a type of value. So, an item of high sentimental value – to an individual or to a community – should be treated as ‘high value’ (even if the raw commodity (i.e exchange) value of the stolen materials is not great).

The seriousness which can be judicially attributed to metal theft is also a function of its widespread, increasing and disruptive nature and clearly in many circumstances considerable value (and premeditation) can also be attributed to the crime as aggravating factors. However, in situations where the haul itself is of relatively low financial value, the opportunity to invoke this alternative class of value is one not to be missed for assets that can credibly be shown to have sentimental value.

NB: In January 2012 the sentencing guidelines for burglary in non-domestic premises were merged into a tariff based approach for punishment of all burglary offences (Sentencing Council 2011). This revised guidance retains sentimental value as an aggravating factor but talks now in terms of that being value that attaches to the victim. This may make it slightly harder to argue that war memorial theft is a crime that attacks the sentimental value invested in a war memorial by a local community, rather than the local authority or other entity that is the legal owner of the plaques – but its still worth a try…

Angel, M. (2012) ‘Government rejects metals theft bill’, http://uk.Reuters.com, 20 January

Ashley, P. (2004) Lest we forget, English Heritage: Swindon

HM Treasury (2011) National Infrastructure Plan 2011, HM Treasury / Infrastructure UK: London http://cdn.hm-treasury.gov.uk/national_infrastructure_plan291111.pdf

Home Office (2012) ‘Government acts against metal thieves’ Press release – 26 January: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/news/metal-theft

House of Commons (2012) Cable theft on the railway – Transport Select Committee’s 14th report (2011-12) – House of Commons: London, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmtran/1609/160902.htm

In Memoriam 2014 (2012) project website – a collaboration between the War Memorials Trust and anti-metal theft technologists SmartWater’s Foundation, http://www.inmemoriam2014.org/

Jones, G. (2012) Private Members’ Bill: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-12/metaltheftprevention.html

May, T. (2012) Scrap metal dealers – written ministerial statement, 30 January: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/parliamentary-business/written-ministerial-statement/scrap-metal-dealers-wms/

Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things, Polity: Bristol.

Sentencing Council (2011) Burglary Offences – Definitive Guidance, Sentencing Council: London http://sentencingcouncil.judiciary.gov.uk/docs/Burglary_Definitive_Guideline_web_final.pdf

Sentencing Council (2008) Theft and Burglary in a building other than a dwelling – definitive guideline, Sentencing Council for England & Wales: London, http://sentencingcouncil.judiciary.gov.uk/docs/web_Theft_and_Burglary_of_a_building_other_than_a_dwelling.pdf