Yorkshire’s affluent towns sleepwalked into county lines nightmare – David Behrens

It has taken us all a while to wake up to the enormity of the drugs crisis that has washed up on our well-scrubbed suburban doorsteps.

Picture posed by models

Drug dealers, we believed, were the denizens of sink estates and concrete shopping malls on the edges of cities; they were someone else’s problem.

The green belt that separated such places from Yorkshire’s “nicer” towns and villages had also insulated us from noticing what was beginning to go on literally under our noses.

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The phenomenon of county lines, a police term for the practice by city dealers of extending their territory beyond its traditional limits, is a plague that is spreading northwards through Yorkshire. This week, councillors in Harrogate joined the ranks of those determined to do something about it. But it will be easier said than done.

Picture posed by models

Drug dealing is perhaps the most insidious of all crimes. It is fed by poverty but its appetite is insatiable, and when the poorest areas become saturated with criminals, they spill out like floodwater on to the higher ground where the likes of you and I hoped we might be safer.

Of course, the affluent suburbs and market towns have always been honeypots for burglars and other visiting criminals but the drugs trade is different. The locals now are not only the victims of crime; they are induced to become the perpetrators, too.

A raft of reports in the last few weeks has laid bare the extent of the problem in North Yorkshire, a county long considered the safest in England.

Julia Mulligan, its outgoing crime commissioner, says seven lines of supply now run through Harrogate, four through York, two through Scarborough and Whitby and one through Skipton. West Yorkshire towns like Ilkley are similarly ensnared.

In all these places, distribution is by vulnerable local children and adults who have been recruited by out-of-town gangs. Each distributor has a network of prospective clients – and there lies the real worry. Every parent dreads that their children will become contaminated by the easy availability of heroin and cocaine and when it is brought virtually to their doorstep, or to their school common room, by friends they thought they could trust, the lure for some becomes irresistible.

It is naive to suppose that this is an epidemic that can be cut off at the roots. It would be like trying to catch the first person to spread a cold. But we do know where the roots are planted.

In Leeds and Bradford it is as easy to pick up drugs as it is to hail a cab. The laws of supply and demand and the violent rivalry between different gangs means that prices and therefore profits are low.

But in Ilkley and Harrogate, drugs can command as big a premium as houses, proportionally speaking.

Dr Mohammed Qasim, a research fellow at Leeds Beckett University, who studies ethnic minority gangs and drug dealers, did not mince words in hi

With less competition and bigger profits, there was no better place to take drug dealing operations right now than to affluent towns, he said.

It is not even necessary for supplies to be driven from Bradford in the dead of night. Instead, the homes of willing distributors are turned into dealing bases as efficiently as if they were fast- food franchises. No fewer than 74 such houses have been identified by police across North Yorkshire.

Let’s put that into perspective. There are now more dealing houses than free cashpoints in some parts. That is the scale of the drugs economy we have sleepwalked into.

Ms Mulligan’s deputy, Will Naylor, admitted that the authorities were on the back foot.

“The scale is probably bigger than is understood currently by the police,” he said in May, a few days after a 15-year-old schoolgirl had died, apparently after taking ecstasy.

It’s not just a police issue, though. We can all summon our inner detective by taking the advice of the National Crime Agency and informing the authorities, rather than turning a blind eye when suspicious new visitors turn up at the uncared-for house down the road.

Ilkley, Harrogate and towns like them have been made desirable by the pride their residents take in them.

Their obsessiveness in preserving the values of their communities has sometimes seen them vilified as Nimbys, but not now. Drugs have no place anywhere, but especially not in our own back yard.