One of my top 6 priorities as Police and Crime Commissioner would be to Fight Rural Crime, deploying more Neighbourhood Police Teams to give rural communities the police service they deserve. I give some background to this important objective below.
Gloucestershire is predominantly a rural area, although most of its population live in urban areas. The National Rural Crime Network’s 2018 rural crime survey identified ‘criminal damage, vandalism and arson’ as the most commonly experienced crime for most people, with ‘fly tipping’ the worst problem for farmers. About a third of all rural crimes committed were not reported to the police (as it was perceived to be a waste of time or that the police would not do anything). There is also an increasing trend of attacks on rural ATMs, which if it continues, will mean that by this year, half of all ATM crimes around the country will be in rural areas. Only 30% of people in this survey thought the police were doing a good job.
Last October, I spent a lot of time criss-crossing the Cotswolds doing some research on rural crime. First, I went to Tetbury to chat to local politicians about what sort of crime was happening in their area. Although crime levels in Tetbury itself were not too bad (apart from a spate of shed thefts), you do not have to travel too far to hear stories of properties being burgled more than once (burglary victims have more than a 1 in 4 chance of being burgled again!).
Nationally, there is now a trend of isolated properties being targeted more than once by organized cross-border gangs, taking advantage of any situation where the police are failing to react (the biggest increase was among those who had between 2 and 4 burglaries, which was up 26%). Also, when crime did take place, it was often sudden and violent, often being committed by people outside the rural community (unlike urban crime, which is often carried out by local offenders). Many people living in rural areas feel even more isolated, vulnerable and forgotten when they experience crime.
I spoke to one farmer who game across a criminal gang trying to drive off with one of his vehicles, but he managed to scare them off. Yet they still returned within 30 minutes to have another go. Luckily, the farmer had called for assistance from another local farmer – the police had yet to arrive, even 30 minutes after the 999 call.
I also visited Fairford and Cone, both places where the Post Office had been ram-raided. In the second half of last year, there were 8 local post offices attacked by organized criminals. These thugs are first gathering intelligence about vulnerable post-offices and then sending a team across county borders to carry out the attacks. The police say they are making progress tracking them down, but I understand that no arrests have yet been made.
Moreton-in-Marsh, another Cotswold village, has also experienced a 20% rise in crime. Anti-Social Behaviour was again a problem, with young people, aged less than 24 years old, making up a significant proportion of both offenders and victims for these offences.
I also visited Cirencester, which is having problems with Anti-Social Behaviour. For instance, in Thistle Patch Park in Chesterton there have been reports of problems with drug use and litter, problems which often go together. Better Neighbourhood Policing action is required.
However, in some of the media stories reporting this problem, it was obvious that many local residents had not reported to the police the Anti-Social Behaviour they had witnessed. Perhaps the delay in answering the 101 non-emergency number (currently over 4 minutes on average but often very much longer) may be the reason?
I also attended a public meeting in Bourton on the Water. The current Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) was responding to a request to talk about local crime. The meeting was well attended by about 80 villagers, who were clearly concerned about Anti-Social Behaviour (up 30% in the village over the last year) and ram-raids.
Bourton’s post office had also been hit and the village had experienced 5 ATM attacks over the last few years. Persistent local drug use was mentioned quite a few times by villagers, which had been linked to a prominent story in the press recently about a group of men travelling from outside the area who had assaulted a local boy.
There were also complaints about the time it took for the 101 non-emergency operators to be answered. Waits of 20 minutes or more appeared frequent. Speeding in residential areas was also a concern.
I have to say that I was rather disappointed in how the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) was first quite dismissive about the level of crime taking place throughout rural areas within the County.
He was at pains to point out the ‘low level’ nature of much of the crime in the Cotswolds and highlighted that it was much less than urban areas experienced. That may be true, but he gave the impression of being rather complacent about the unique circumstances of rural crime, which often has a bigger impact on a community than in urban areas.
He even said: “you live a crime free life here!” I certainly don’t agree with that statement and many in the audience were audibly incredulous.
The PCC and the police representative sadly gave many mixed messages at the meeting, emphasising their decriminalisation policy for drugs and the need to safeguard young drug offenders.
It was clear that drug dealing was regarded as a low priority and after pressure from some residents, they eventually encouraged everyone to report what they were seeing but not yet reporting. Yet if the police are not going to respond quickly, many felt ‘why bother’? I can understand the approach of not wanting to criminalise young teenage drug takers but how can the police ‘safeguard’ them if they do not respond when the public alerts them to drug dealing on the 101 non-emergency line or on 999??
How can they offer help to get them off drugs and participate in more healthy activities, or join the local youth club, which seems to be very successful?? Ignoring drug crime is not a way to safeguard our youth or protect our communities from all the Anti-Social Behaviour that tends to go with drug activity.
Another thing I picked up researching rural crime. The Cotswolds has the lowest crime clear up rate in the whole country, at just 3.5%.
This is a scandal, with just a 1 in 30 chance of a bugler being caught. If criminals do not fear getting caught, they will commit more crime and take more risks, just as they have been doing with all these post office and ATM ram-raids. It is time for action to protect our rural communities. The Chief Constable needs to be held to account by a Police and Crime commissioner who actually listens to the public.
Early morning on Saturday 9 November, an ATM cash machine was robbed at a petrol station in Moreton in Marsh, just after the tyres on 8 police cars at the local station were slashed. Just shows that it is confident and well-organized professional gangs at work, who appear to be acting with impunity.
As well as more Neighbourhood Police Teams, we need to concentrate on preventing Anti-Social Behaviour within villages. To combat the organized crime groups targeting our post offices and ATMs, we need better intelligence and surveillance, making good use of thermal scopes, software that predicts crime hot spots, Automatic Number Plate Recognition and drones to monitor illegal activity and follow escaping vehicles.
Please get in touch if you are concerned about rural crime in your area.