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Piece by piece, Britain – like many countries – is being stripped of metal. Spurred on by high commodity prices and squeezed like everyone else by economic stagnation, thieves are stealing copper, lead and other metals from historic houses, church roofs, war memorials, railways,
the telephone network and power lines.

Apart from the cost – estimated at £770m last year – it is one of the largest threats to the country’s heritage. It must be the biggest loss of metals since the second world war, when park and house railings were torn down, supposedly to make Spitfires, though I think they ended up in munitions.

Criminal gangs and petty thieves, attracted by the ease of exchanging stolen metals for cash, are scouring the country for targets. Commuter rail services have been repeatedly disrupted by cable theft.

Several thieves have died trying to pinch copper from live electricity lines. The village of Newton on Trent, Lincolnshire, was plunged into darkness when 3,000ft of overhead cabling was stolen. Barrington in Cambridgeshire has been targeted eight times by thieves who steal copper phone lines, leaving homes without phone or internet access. Mysteriously, they mainly strike on Thursday nights.

It is not just metal – desperate criminals are taking anything they can sell, from drystone walls to garden sheds, dogs, tortoises and bales of hay. Metal, though, causes most concern: the price of copper, at £5,000 a tonne, is down on earlier this year but has doubled since 2009, driven by demand in China, India and Brazil.

Police cannot keep up. Short of a dramatic fall in commodity prices, the only option seems to be to amend the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 to license dealers and ban them from dealing in cash.

It may go against efforts to cut business red tape but there appears little alternative.

Haircut defiance

To those bankers facing an unwelcome trip to the barber to lose half the value of loans to Greece, I offer the sentiments of the classic David Crosby song:

Almost cut my hair

It happened just the other day

It was getting kind of long

I could have said it was in my way

But I didn’t and I wonder why

I feel like letting my freak flag fly

And I feel like I owe it to someone

Questions, questions

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister, is under fire for his plan to put two propositions in a referendum in 2014-15, one that would make Scotland independent and another that would hand all tax powers to the Scottish parliament, while preserving the union with England.

Liberal Democrats asked last week what would happen if voters backed both propositions, but there was a bigger majority for the latter, known as “devolution max”.

The Scottish National party’s answer was that independence would prevail, even though more people had voted to stay in the union. Odd as that seems, there is a logic. In that circumstance, most of the devo max block would be pro-independence voters hedging their bets by backing both.

Some unionists want David Cameron to call a pre-emptive referendum – for which Westminster claims the constitutional power – asking the simple question: “Do you want to stay part of the United Kingdom?” (itself a rather loaded way of putting it). But if it looked like a manoeuvre to thwart Mr Salmond, it could backfire.

Circular logic

London’s M25 orbital motorway opened 25 years ago, two days after the City’s deregulatory Big Bang. It is said that testosterone-charged traders used to use the 117-mile circuit as an illegal racetrack, racing their Porsches and Ferraris early on weekend mornings.

Thankfully, they no longer do so, but the M25 seems symbolic of our times – a nation dominated by the south east, stuck in an endless circular traffic jam.

Hypnotic

Coldplay tried recording under hypnosis for their new album Mylo Xyloto, which went straight to number one. Surely, some cynics would say, their music is a form of hypnosis.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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