County lines gangs drive drug crime rise in towns and villages, as it falls in city centres

Drug taking paraphenalia

Drug crime is increasing in many small towns and villages at the same as it is falling in city centres, new figures suggest. The decline in city drug crime and rise in more rural areas is attributed to the growth in “county lines” gangs which exploit children and teenagers to take drugs from urban centres to country towns.

The data shows that in Liverpool drug crime has fallen by nearly 20 per cent, but 15 miles away in Chester it increased by 40 per cent.

Of the 200 areas where drug crime has increased the most since 2013, almost three quarters have a population which is lower than the average for all built-up areas. 

In contrast, of the 200 areas where drug crime has decreased the most, nine in 10 have an above-average population.

In Westminster, central London, drug crime more than halved over the same period, from 4,041 to 1,832.

By contrast, though unrelated to county lines gangs according to police, there was a quadrupling in drug offences in five years near the village of Westhumble in Surrey, which has a population of 649.

Surrey police said the offences of cannabis possession, not dealing, largely related to a beauty spot car park which was targeted by officers to prevent drug-driving offences.

As well as towns on the peripheries of cities seeing increases, another pattern can be seen along the south coast of England. Bournemouth and Weymouth both saw rises of at least 50%, and Swanage, Bridport, Lyme Regis, Exeter and Redruth in Cornwall all saw significant increases in drug crime.

The trend is mirrored by knife crime which rose by up to 50 per cent in rural areas in the past year as violence spread from cities, fuelled by county lines drug gangs.

Suffolk, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Kent, Lancashire and Dyfed-Powys saw some of the biggest rises as knife crime overall in England and Wales rose by eight per cent to 43,516 offences, its highest since records began eight years ago.

Research by the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield estimates there are 310,000 children who know a gang member, while the National Crime Agency (NCA) says the number of “county lines” drug networks has grown from 700 to 2,000 in a year with the youngest recruits just 11 years old.

CORRECTION: This article, which reports a BBC analysis of police crime figures, originally stated incorrectly that the number of drug crimes has risen from nine to 42 in the village of  Westhumble, Surrey, in the last five years. In fact, as the article now sets out, these figures relate to the area around Westhumble, not in the village itself, and are primarily accounted for by offences of cannabis possession, not dealing, at a local beauty spot.