County lines: Importance of multi-layered analysis and responses

Paul Andell
Tuesday, 24 March 2020

On 5 March 2020 the Policing Minister Kit Malthouse hosted a Tackling Crime Forum, with Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).

The event discussed best practices in tackling issues of serious violence and county lines. Since this meeting unprecedented socio-economic interventions have been introduced to address the Coronavirus public health crisis to meet needs and reduce risks from unnecessary suffering. It is suggested that similar radical policy interventions applied to the Coronavirus public health crisis should also be applied to the public health crisis of youth gang violence and drug prevalence.

Challenges and austerity

One of the main challenges confronting PCC’s, in light of austerity measures, has been the erosion of policing numbers and youth services. This brings concerns that community problem solving will give way to more reactive militaristic enforcement in local neighbourhoods which threatens the legitimacy of local policing and creates a reluctance to report local problems.

The gaps in local community-based problem-solving and national co-ordinated responses has resulted in a failure to stem the flow of county line drug markets with associated increases in serious violence and class A drug prevalence. Ironically reactive local policing sweeps run the risk of more professionalised markets as the low hanging fruit of user-dealers and smaller scale distribution networks are replaced by more organised networks of county line gangs.

Street-based gangs can provide a violently expressive youthful tier for county lines drug dealing networks while the upper tiers of the network more cautiously involve themselves in functional violence to ensure market share and debt compliance. For many young people the gang provides the bonding capital of friendship and belonging and a bridging capital which offers possible routs to economic success.

The context behind rational choices

The strategies of the 27,000 young people in England and Wales who identify as gang members and the further estimated 60,000 who are thought to be gang involved are multi-layered and can appear: as a rational choice for those who are under threat or influence of peer pressure; or as an emotional response for those who are vulnerable to grooming due to trauma, poor socialisation or mental health. Underpinning these conscious and unconscious actions is the underlying logic of the socio-political environment of acute relative deprivation in which these children develop and aspire in search of respect and reward.

What's driving the violence?

It is difficult to quantify gang-related violence as gang-related offences are not routinely flagged in the collection of offence data. However, between April 2018 and March 2019 around 47,500 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument were recorded in England and Wales; 82% higher than in 2013/14. Health data indicate increases of assaults with a sharp instrument have increased by almost 60% against young people since 2013.

Dame Carol Black’s independent review reports, heroin and crack retail markets has been overtaken by the county lines model, which is driving increased violence. It is further reported that drug deaths in 2018 were the highest on record and deaths involving cocaine have increased five-fold.

County line networks prompt intervention challenges for professionals working with involved children, regarding the prioritisation of welfare and justice. Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has urged ministers to hold weekly Cobra-style meetings regarding this violent crime 'emergency', and if the emergency is multi-layered then so must be our responses to it.

Addressing the problem

Co-ordinated efforts from central government to address this problem should ensure a minimum universal income, to reduce relative deprivation and the development of locally responsive youth and drugs services should be prioritised in public health legislative frameworks. With these arrangements, Local Authorities should be required to provide a range of services based on local need and this would be defined through an analytical action research process of problem mapping and needs assessment.

Services would then be developed in conjunction with local stakeholders and interventions should aim to reshape local drug markets towards less harmful forms. A public health approach towards youth violence should oversee the formation of local multi-agency youth bureaus to reduce the current separation between children rights organisations, welfare agencies and youth justice teams.

In conclusion, it should be recognised that in the right circumstances young people can find creative and productive pathways into adulthood. In order to assist we need to provide bridging capital for alternative routes to respect and reward that is currently being sought for those who are caught up in county lines.

Dr Paul Andell is a Senior Lecturer, University of Suffolk.