LEAD thefts from churches across Lancashire have dropped for the first time in three years.

But criminals still cost the Diocese of Blackburn £40,000 last year.

The figures, released by insurance company Ecclesiastical which covers most Anglican churches, show a dramatic decline in incidents in recent years.

There were more than 70 claims and £140,000 paid out during 2011 and more than 30 claims in 2010, leading to £45,000 in payouts.

Officials are calling for more community involvement to stamp out the problem.

Archdeacon of Blackburn John Hawley said: “There was a point when there were barely any lead thefts, but because of the economic situation people are struggling and they see it as an easy way to get cash. We might want to use different malliable metals, such as zinc, to replace the lead, but because many of the buildings are listed, English Heritage demands we use the same material.

“We have had good work by the government and police, but could do with a ‘church watch’, similar to neighbourhood and community watches.”

Ecclesiastical spokesperson Kateri Link said: “Legislation banning cash payments for scrap metals has had a very positive effect, as has policing.

“We’ve been giving advice to churches, such as blocking off vehicle access points, because lead’s a very heavy metal and will need transporting.

“Churches now have roof alarms, security lights, CCTV cameras and use Smart Water, which marks the metal so police can trace where it was stolen from.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, church metal thefts were as infrequent as 10 a year, until in 2007 when there was a sudden spike of 2,600 incidents nationally.

Thieves stole £25,000 worth of lead from St Mary’s RC Church in Burnley, after parishioners had worked to raise £90,000 for a new roof, while St John the Evangelist CofE Church, Burnley, was targeted a dozen times.

Miss Link said: “We’ve also encouraged churches to make friends with neighbours, so they might call the police if they see any suspicious activity.”