Rural crime special report: Countryside proves fertile fields for criminals

Drugs gangs and organised crime networks are increasingly pushing into vulnerable countryside communities, rural police forces are warning, as they call on the Government to recognise the new threats they face by overhauling the funding system.

Officers from North Yorkshire Police's Rural Taskforce are tackling criminals in the countryside.

Parts of rural Yorkshire have seen dramatic increases in the theft of high-value items such as quad bikes, as well as the rising problem of so-called ‘county lines’ drugs networks, in which inner-city gangs extend their operations out into smaller communities.

Julia Mulligan, Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire and the chairman of the National Rural Crime Network, said: “Serious and organised crime groups are targeting rural communities and I think it is not just about drugs - look at some of the machinery theft issues.”

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She said there had been “a lot of concern” among the network that the Government had delayed an overdue reform of the police funding formula.

This, when added to under-reporting of crime in the countryside, meant “rural communities are being under-served”, she said.

Many police forces have long argued for a review of the way police budgets are handed out.

But in 2015, the Home Office under Theresa May was forced to pause a reform programme after errors were discovered in the proposals. While ministers have said it will now be reconsidered at next year’s spending review, police chiefs fear it may again be kicked into the long grass.

Former Shadow Rural Affairs Minister Baroness McIntosh of Pickering said there is “obviously a funding issue” for rural forces, which can face disproportionately high costs.

The former Tory MP for Thirsk and Malton said she would be happy to campaign and “shout out loud” to give rural forces the funding they need, insisting that “we can’t keep postponing a review of police funding”.

Lady McIntosh also warned that gaps in policing can lead to residents taking matters into their own hands, giving the example of Norfolk farmer Tony Martin who was jailed for three years after shooting a teenage burglar on his property in 1999.

Shadow Police Minister Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield, Heeley, said: “Resources are so stretched that if the picture of crime does change to more serious crimes, rural forces will struggle to respond.

“The problem is they just don’t have the capability to respond to changes in the drugs market.”

Serious crime is now causing “high levels of anxiety” among countryside communities, a leading rural insurer has warned.

Rebecca Davidson, a rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “In England, police force boundaries were set up in the days when rural crime meant someone stealing a lamb for the pot or a few tools being taken away in a wheelbarrow.

"Today’s criminals work across international as well as county borders and target rural communities for equipment worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, which can be taken across modern transport links and into Europe within hours.”

She said the thieves “exploit the communication barriers created by our historic police force boundaries to avoid detection” and the cost to the UK economy was an estimated £44.5m in 2017, the highest level in four years.

She said: “However, it’s also human cost and the stress that is a major concern.

“The threat of becoming a victim of rural crime, and the fear of being watched or ‘staked out’ is causing high levels of anxiety amongst many farmers and rural dwellers who know their location makes them vulnerable to attacks.”

South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, said the funding debate should not be seen as a contest between urban and rural and the main aim should be to increase police funding overall.

Policing Minister Nick Hurd declined a request for interview.

In a statement, he said: “We know the nature of crime is changing, which is why I have spoken to every police force in the country to understand the demands they are facing. “The Home Secretary this week committed to prioritising police funding in next year’s Spending Review.”