The Conservatives let down the countryside when it comes to crime, Labour must do better - Andrew Vine

As our county’s countryside community comes together at the Great Yorkshire Show today, they’re going to have even more than usual to talk about.

The Labour government’s attitude towards agriculture will undoubtedly be debated by many attending this greatest of events in the Yorkshire calendar over the next four days, but so might a problem demanding the urgent attention of ministers mastering new briefs – rural crime.

Our countryside and those who live and work in it are being preyed on by criminals, and nothing like enough is being done to bring them to justice.

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That much was clear from a study by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) last week which revealed rural crime rates are increasing faster than those in urban areas, rising 32 per cent since 2011, compared to 24 per cent in towns and cities.

Mist blows through the Yorkshire Dales National Park. PIC: Tony JohnsonMist blows through the Yorkshire Dales National Park. PIC: Tony Johnson
Mist blows through the Yorkshire Dales National Park. PIC: Tony Johnson

And it is costing the countryside a fortune it can ill afford. According to insurers NFU Mutual, rural crime amounted to £49.5m in 2022, which hit farms especially hard.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the criminals targeting rural communities are getting away with it because hard-pressed police forces do not have enough officers, or in some cases even the basic kit, to tackle them.

Freedom of information requests show a lack of officers tasked with combating rural crime.

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One of our forces, South Yorkshire, has the distinction of deploying the largest number of rural officers in the country, which is to be applauded. But that amounts to only 92 officers out of a strength of more than 3,000.

And those South Yorkshire officers are short of kit, with only two high-powered torches between them.

The story is the same for virtually every other force questioned by the CLA. In some areas, less than a dozen officers are dedicated to rural crime, and others lack essential equipment to track criminals down, especially at night, including drones and number-plate recognition cameras.

Forces juggling competing priorities spend wildly varying amounts on policing the countryside, and the CLA is calling for ring-fenced funding.

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It would be unfair to criticise police too harshly for failing to combat rural crime. The service is under unprecedented pressures and short of personnel after government mismanagement stretching back more than a decade which has seen it starved of funding and unable to recruit enough officers.

Let’s not forget that at the 2019 general election, the Conservatives promised to recruit an additional 20,000 officers, conveniently neglecting to mention they would only be replacing the numbers cut over the previous few years.

Against such a backdrop, the surge in offences is really no surprise and has undoubtedly been aggravated by the particular difficulties of policing the countryside.

In common with health and social services, police are spread more thinly in the vastness of Yorkshire’s landscapes than they are in the towns and cities.

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Response times to reports of crime – even 999 calls – are longer and it is easier for criminals to get away undetected on quiet roads in the Dales, North Yorkshire Moors or East Yorkshire.

Isolated farms have long been plagued by thefts of valuable machinery and the difficulty of securing large areas of land makes them prime targets for criminals who gamble the chances of being caught are low.

If there was as sharp a rise in crime in Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield or Hull as there has been in the countryside, action would be demanded of ministers.

But as so often with rural issues over many years, out of sight is out of mind when it comes to government resources being allocated, with urban areas getting the most attention and spending.

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Crime in the countryside has undoubtedly been made worse by the drug problems that have seeped out of the cities, with thefts and burglaries funding addiction.

Residents and people running businesses in rural Yorkshire are not second-class citizens compared to their urban counterparts, and deserve the same level of resources devoted to tackling crime, but the CLA findings show they are not getting it.

This must change. A new government, ministers fresh to their jobs and an intake of MPs who may find revised constituency boundaries have brought more of the countryside into their care add up to an opportunity for a reset on tackling rural crime.

The Conservatives, despite billing themselves as the party of law and order, let the countryside down on crime. Labour must show it can do better.

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