Shifting the balance

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The interlocking rings of the Olympics could be an apt symbol for a new scheme to combat theft of construction plant, says Stefan Bramwell

The historic gathering of athletes for the 2012 London Games will be foretold by the amassed construction plant at the 500-acre Olympic development site - with potentially rich pickings for plant thieves, if current levels of theft go unabated.

Allianz estimates that while more than £70m of plant is stolen each year in the UK, the true loss is more than double that when other costs such as hire, replacement, downtime and contract penalties for late completion are taken into account. The only way to control such theft is for stakeholder efforts to interlock, like the Olympic rings, to shut thieves out. And a new initiative, with broad industry backing, plans to achieve this.

The Construction Equipment Security and Registration Scheme was launched in January with an operational start date of 2 April. The scheme follows pressure from the Plant Theft Action Group, a voluntary advisory body established in 2000 by the Home Office, and comprises representatives from plant manufacturers, hirers, insurers and the police. Led by DC Ian Elliot, the Metropolitan Police proposed the scheme and have since drafted comprehensive measures.

CESAR includes the use of registration, transponder technology and a unique plant-identification number allocated and affixed to each item of plant, allowing identification and around-the-clock verification of any piece by the police, site teams, insurers and potential purchasers. CESAR will be financed by plant owners buying the registration and marking service for approximately £100 per item.

If equipment is stolen, an immediate report can be made to the police or to Datatag, the appointed data handler. An accurate record of plant details will populate the police national computer, enabling the matching of stolen and recovered plant - currently a difficult task.

CESAR provides a national scheme for police to identify plant and is being rolled out to other forces across the UK. However, DC Elliot wants industry funding for a plant-theft investigation unit to collate intelligence, investigate criminal networks, arrest suspects and seize assets. "At present, plant theft is viewed as low-risk and high-reward," he says. "But whereas convicted thieves have previously got away with a £50 court fine, our intention is to use the Proceeds of Crime Act to seize property and vehicles. Whether plant is being sold or used for crime, people are making a living from it and we want to drive them out of the industry."

Allianz Cornhill Engineering has already pledged £60,000 to the Met over two years, and DC Elliot is hoping other insurers and construction companies will follow suit, with negotiations underway.

Action barriers

One of the major barriers to action is that, despite plant's high value, statistically it represents less than 1% of stolen vehicles. According to DC Elliot, around 120 vehicles a day are lost in London, but only one or two items of plant, so it doesn't appear on Home Office volume-crime figures and consequently hasn't been targeted. "However, stolen plant is about organised theft, not joyriding, and has links with serious crime," he explains.

"Thieves have taken advantage of the lack of concerted action or co-operation across police-force boundaries, and plant stolen in one county is often sold in another, or shipped abroad."

A far darker issue, for the Olympics and other developments, is the spectre of terrorism. DC Elliot acknowledges that terrorist activities in London and elsewhere have sparked a new assessment of 21st century threats to UK security. "Plant-theft proceeds may be used to fund specialist devices, and there is potential for plant itself to be adapted for more hostile purposes. Our aim is to design these threats out."

Vehicle-enabled terrorism is naturally a key motivator for police involvement in developing tools to control plant movement. The Met is in talks with the Olympic Delivery Authority about creating a registration-only zone - a first in the UK - that will require identification and documentation for any plant on site. Tarique Ghaffur, assistant commissioner of the Met Police, has voiced strong support for the proposal and recommended it to the ODA. Backing has also been received, for CESAR, from the Association of Chief Police Officers.

A constant flow of plant during the Olympic development programme creates logistical problems that some might regard as an opportunity for theft. Both its concentration in one area and the consequent supply issues elsewhere in the country could further provide incentive for theft. Control of access and movement by site owners and operatives is therefore vital - which is a far easier task when registration and marking are required.

Past resistance to security schemes has stemmed in part from the tight deadlines imposed on many construction projects. Ease and immediacy of use are of primary importance, without the need to disable immobilisers or search for unique keys. But common operation systems leave equipment wide open to thieves, who can easily find or obtain keys. And while efforts continue to be made to improve equipment security, the CESAR scheme does not make plant harder to use.

Paying the penalty

The expected £100 charge per item can be offset by savings through improved productivity and reduced penalties for contract delays caused by missing plant. Cheaper insurance is also likely, and Allianz for one has committed to offering a discount of up to 20% on registered plant insured under its contractors' plant or contractors' all risks policies.

Compared to the value of the plant being protected, PTAG chairman Kevin Clancy, joint managing director of The Clancy Group, views registration as an efficient use of money for two reasons: to reduce the risk of plant being stolen and increase the chances of recovery. "We protect personal possessions with locks and alarms, but if you hope to recover stolen items you have to help police identify it," he says. "They can't be expected to be experts in such a specialised market, and need a system that enables simple recognition."

Mr Clancy believes that industry initiation to back CESAR is the key to its success: "Discussions about the way forward have been going on for 10 years, and this is a breakthrough advancement." He predicts that scheme uptake will snowball and, within a year or two, regular buyers will all be requesting registration documents. As proof of ownership becomes the norm and an on-site requirement, unregistered plant will be almost impossible to use and difficult to re-sell. "What then will be the attraction of stolen plant? Not only will it be much tougher to sell, but also less attractive to buy, so the supply chain will be squeezed from both ends."

Criminals naturally go for soft targets that offer high returns, so opportunity theft will dwindle because it relies on the ability to sell something on as quickly as possible. But even large-scale organised thieves will find fewer outlets for big plant and will face far greater risks.

Stefan Bramwell is underwriting manager for construction at Allianz Cornhill Engineering.

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