METAL theft in East Lancashire has tumbled dramatically, new figures revealed.

The number of thefts reported to the police has fallen from 1,819 in 2011 to 1,017 last year, police data released under the Freedom of Information Act showed.

However, the number of stone thefts in the same period has tripled, from 71 to 213, sparking fears criminals put off metal theft by strict new legislation are changing tact.

The crime has been linked nationally with the recession, and prices for some types of stone, such as York, can fetch around £100 a square metre.

Hyndburn and Haslingden MP Graham Jones said he had expected metal theft to fall following the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act last February.

Trading with cash was outlawed, and dealers were required to apply for a licence in a bid to combat theft.

The Labour MP, who chairs an all-party group on combating metal theft, said: “I led the campaign for this but more pertinently, I argued for the toughest regulations possible.

“We almost achieved that — there are one or two areas I want to see improved — but it showed that the softly softly approach would not have had the dramatic impact that this tough regulation has had.

“What we are seeing is that those who previously stolen metal are looking for new opportunities, which they will always do, but we are not seeing a 100 per cent transfer. The figures pale in comparison.”

Rishton is one town that has been plagued by stone thefts in recent months, with back yards targeted as well as pavements.

Coun Ken Moss called on the public to help catch the ‘thieving scum’.

In March, efforts to steal large stone slabs from the around the war memorial in Memorial Park, Great Harwood was thwarted when four foot by three foot slabs were spotted lying in a pile, waiting to be loaded into a vehicle.

The issue has also been prioritised by local officers in the Woodnook area of Accrington.