Crime Gangs Targeting Rural Communities Reveals New Report

13 March 2024

Serious organised criminals including those linked to the international drug trade are increasingly preying on rural communities, a shocking new report has found. Despite the growing threat of crime facing rural people, campaigners say police forces across the UK are treating it as a small-scale issue, leaving people in the countryside living in fear.

The report from Durham University, commissioned by the National Rural Crime Network in conjunction with several leading rural organisations, including the Countryside Alliance, Country Land and Business Association, and the National Farmers Union, claims many crimes are committed by ‘prolific rural offenders’, rather than opportunistic individuals, who intentionally victimise rural communities in multiple ways, including through violence and intimidation, during long and sustained criminal careers.

Data from the report carried out by senior criminologist Dr Kate Tudor found that many rural criminals are also involved in the supply and sale of drugs, often on a large, and global, scale. Foreign organised crime networks are also deeply involved in sustaining the UK’s rural crime problem by creating international transportation and disposal routes for goods stolen from the UK countryside.

Dr Tudor said:

“Essentially, they are entrepreneurs working in the field of illicit business. They are already well grounded in crimes such as drug dealing, but they’re always looking for new and emerging business opportunities.”

Additionally, the report reveals that some twenty-two organised crime gangs are actively involved in rural crime across the UK. Worryingly, however, only a small number of them are mapped in formal police procedures, which not only means the full extent of organised crime activity in rural areas is unknown, but crimes are less likely to be a priority for police intervention. The gangs also intentionally cross the borders of police force boundaries to exploit the weaknesses in policing methods.

Agricultural machinery and vehicle theft, hare coursing and poaching, theft of livestock, and fly-tipping are just some of the crimes found to have devastating consequences for those who reside, and own businesses, in the countryside. The report found that the costs associated with the theft of agricultural machinery and vehicles alone were £11.7 million, an increase of 29% from the previous year.

The report underscores that both fear of crime and first-hand victimisation are rampant. Of those recently surveyed by the Countryside Alliance, some 97% of rural respondents felt that crime was a significant problem in their community, and 43% of those surveyed reported that they had been the victim of crime in the last 12 months.

Despite this, rural communities claim they feel unsupported due to what the report describes as a ‘collapse in police-community relationships’, which has ‘significant consequences for feelings of safety in rural areas’. Rural communities are found to have a lack of faith in rural policing, feeling that police do not take rural crime seriously, which results in frequent underreporting of crimes.

In response to the report’s revelations, the NRCN has set out ten recommendations which it believes will help the countryside fight back, including an overhaul of the way police prioritise rural crime. They have called on the College of Policing to review and update their Threat, Harm and Investigation guidelines (THRIVE), used to assess the right initial police response, to better reflect the growing serious and organised element to rural criminality and its impact on rural communities. Additional measures include recruiting specialist rural crime coordinators, implementing tougher controls at ports and borders, and issuing new rural crime sentencing guidelines.

Tim Passmore Chair of the NRCN and PCC for Suffolk said:

“People in rural areas are paying higher and higher taxes but often feel that Policing in their communities is not a priority.  This new research provides clear evidence that criminal gangs from the UK and abroad are using our countryside to commit crimes that fuel the drugs trade and other serious criminal activity. It is now time to acknowledge that if we want to stop the organised crime gangs we have to better protect our farms, businesses and rural communities.”

Sarah Lee, Countryside Alliance’s Director of Policy and Campaigns, said:

“The report’s findings make clear that current understandings of – and responses to – rural crime fall dangerously short of grappling with the severity and complexity of the UK’s rural crime problem. We will continue to support rural communities in combatting rural crime and voicing their concerns to police forces around the country.”

The full National Rural Crime Network Report can be found here.

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