Article: Theory into practice: County Lines, violence and changes to drug markets

Author: Paul Andell | Tags: , , , ,

In this article, Paul Andell explores the need for new theories about gangs, violence and drug markets that take account of recent changes to drug markets, gang involvement and organised criminal networks. He calls for theories that will allow new contextual and situational models of policy and practice to be developed that take account of differences between areas and the realities of issues such as 'County Lines' and youth violence.

The purpose of this article is not to fan the flames of moral panic regarding gangs, and their involvement with County Lines and violence, but to further familiarise practitioners with evidence of the changing context in which they practice. The article highlights significant changes that appear to have taken place in some ‘middle markets’, particularly those of crack and heroin.  These changes contrast with the emphasis of earlier reports which focused on social supply of these drugs through local informal networks (e.g. Coomber et al 2015). Recent evidence suggests increasing professionalised arrangements have emerged, now popularly known as County Lines, which involve widespread exploitation of young and vulnerable people in order to expand class A drug markets from cities to smaller towns. An early analysis of these arrangements was previously published in Youth and Policy (Andell and Pitts 2018).

Since the above article was published, significant changes in prevalence of some class A drugs have been reported nationally, with the numbers of people who take either crack and/or heroin increasing by 4.4% between 2015 and 2017 (O’Connor, 2019). Moreover, the numbers of people seeking treatment for crack misuse from services has increased by 49% between 2015 and 2018. More detail about these changes can be found on Public Health England’s ‘Public Health Matters’ blog.

These changes inevitably will have profound effects on services and should be taken seriously in policy and practice not at least because of the disproportionate impact on socially excluded young people and on the communities in which new drug supply networks develop. Practitioners’ concerns regarding missing children and exploited vulnerable adults have alerted academics and policy makers to the current phenomenon of County Lines. The All Party Political Group on County Lines’ Report (Coffey 2017) regarding missing children and their involvement in developing drug networks outlines these concerns.

County Lines drug supply, which involves the exploitation of vulnerable children and adults by criminal gangs, has been described by the broadsheet media as a bigger threat than the exploitation exposed by the Rotherham scandal (O’Neil 2017). While there is no doubt that the media can amplify deviance and evoke deep emotions about reported issues, it should also be remembered, as Young (2009) has argued, there has to be deviance in the first place in order for it to be amplified. My own recent analysis offers explanations of how ideas and policies about gangs have changed from an over cautious de facto denial of gangs towards, arguably, a disconnected acceptance of gangs as part of everyday life in some neighbourhoods (Andell 2019a). 

Recent media reports of violence and exploitation have been predicated on empirical research studies indicating real changes to drug dealing networks, now popularly known as County Lines (Windle and Briggs 2015, Coomber et al 2015, Disley and Liddle 2016, Hallworth 2016, Andell and Pitts 2017 & 2018, Whittaker 2017). Hallworth (2016) provides a useful description of County Lines which asserts that they:  

…can be understood as the migration of gangs from their home area into a new geographical setting, with the objective of establishing a new physical and organisational base, from which to transplant the values and business models of their gang. (Hallworth 2016, p.16)

Current ideas regarding contextual safeguarding for vulnerable young people who are subject to peer exploitation have been developed by Carlene Firmin and colleagues that take account of these features of County Lines arrangements. Contextual safeguarding is a response to extra-familial forms of abuse, which consists of an approach to child protection intended to assess, support, and where necessary intervene with, peer relationships in educational and public contexts, where young people are at risk of significant harm. It is a form of intervention which addresses extra-familial risk through the lens of child welfare, as opposed to crime reduction or community safety.

However, different theories about the social reality of English street gangs can both help and hamper policy and practice responses to gangs. Recent national policies are located within ideological frameworks and particularly the present economic policy context of austerity. This raises questions regarding policy directions to achieve safer neighbourhoods (see Andell 2019a). As such, I have framed some possible developments for good community safety practice and possible alternative policy directions (Andell 2019b). These contextual interventions will be different in different places but involve the common approach of action research which seeks to bring together stakeholder views on enforcement, situational prevention, individual and peer interventions and community development.

Some of us working in this academic area suggest that unobservable structures (patterns of relations and roles between young people and gang members) cause observable events (gang behaviour) which have resulted in changing patterns of drug dealing (Andell and Pitts 2017). Practitioners may be aware of some of the recent changes through problems presented by their clients but may not be fully cognisant of the causal tendencies of what their clients present, particularly if services are provided remotely from the peer networks and neighbourhoods in which the violence and offending occurs. 

Analyses undertaken by the National Crime Agency (NCA 2015 & 2017) assess the risks from County Lines as a national threat. In its Intelligence Assessment reports on County Lines, Gangs, and Safeguarding, the NCA describes the way street gangs exploit vulnerable younger adolescents in both the major cities and out of town locations to distribute narcotics across most of the country (NCA 2015, 2017 & 2018). Further Intelligence Assessments continue to be produced.

Gang violence has emerged as both an expressive and functional tool for use in the changing Class A drug markets in the UK. The extent or scale of actual gang related violence in the UK is difficult to discern due to unreported crime and anomalies in recording of reported crime statistics. Moreover, these difficulties are further exacerbated due to disagreements as to the definition of street gangs (Pyrooz and Densley 2018). Pitts’ (2008) ideas of the ‘super gang’ appears to overcome some of the problems of the fluidity and changing nature of English street gangs, with reports of some gangs co-opting local crime families as a local franchise partner in the drugs business and in effect leaving the street (see also Andell and Pitts 2017). These off-street arrangements sometimes result in gang elders being represented in their absence by younger, less organised local gang members. A model of this type of flexible gang structure is provided by the Centre for Social Justice (2009)

The extent of gang membership in England was approximated by a study undertaken for the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2019The study estimated that up to 27,000 English children and young people were gang members, with a further 60,000 involved with gangs or siblings of gang members (Longfield, 2019). An All Party Political Group (APPG) which enables parliamentarians and practitioners to exchange ideas produced a briefing on the nature of missing young people caught up in County Lines.

A recent analysis of youth violence by the Cross Party Youth Violence Commission was careful to avoid the term ‘gang’ (Youth Violence Commission 2018), presumably to avoid the labelling and stigma associated with so called ‘Gang Talk’ (Hallsworth 2013). To date, the Commission’s work is not yet complete, it has included six evidence sessions and a national ‘Safer Lives Survey’ conducted by Warwick University in early 2018. The survey asked young people about the levels of violence that they are exposed to in their everyday lives and is the first national survey of young people’s views on violence. The Commission received over 2200 responses to the survey and a full analysis of the responses is due soon. Initial findings suggest more than 70% of young people are exposed to serious violence in real life at least once a month, with 90% of young people exposed to serious violence at least once a week through media (e.g. music, television and social media) (Youth Violence Commission 2018).

The Office for National Statistics (2019) states that the overall trend in violent crime over the past twenty years has been one of decline. However, there is evidence of an increase in some lower-volume, higher-harm violent offences recorded by the police. Government figures suggest that the number of homicides recorded by the police have risen consecutively over the past four years ending March 2018, following a long-term decline. Police recorded crime and National Health Service (NHS) data have also indicated rises in the number of offences involving knives or sharp instruments over the last four years (ONS 2019)Grimshaw and Ford (2018) outline the recent increase in crime relating to young people, violence and knives.

Finigan-Carr et al (2015) argue that for young people who live in relatively deprived neighbourhoods, street culture increases the likelihood of involvement in negative peer relationships, encounters with violent victimisation, easier access to weapons, and witnessing street violence. It is suggested that this, in turn, increases fear for future lethal violence and reduces the ability of families and communities to manage aggressive youth behaviours. Elijah Anderson (1999) describes how a reputation for violence in some street cultures may not return fiscal capital for the young people but can provide them with social capital. Simon Harding (2014) refers to this form of social capital as street capital. A reputation for violence can offer bonding capital or a sense of belonging to similarly located peers, which serves to imbue a sense of family (or ‘fam’) but does little to elevate young people from their relatively deprived neighbourhoods; for this to occur bridging capital is needed (Harding 2014). Andell and Pitts (2018) argue that there is evidence to suggest that the practices of some English street gangs have evolved into drugs distribution networks which now cover large areas of the UK. It is arguable that this evolution is contingent on the global features of availability of class A drugs and the local bridging capital of pre-existing criminal networks. Pre-existing opportunity structures for crime are integral to these potential transitions for contemporary English gangs. Understanding access to the middle drugs market is crucial in explaining the potential evolution of street gangs into the realms of local organised crime and the functional (rather than simply, expressive) use of violence in the alternative market of illegal drugs. This suggests that in the development of County Lines networks, the required bridging capital has been achieved.

In academia, much debate has taken place as to whether gangs exist (see Pitts 2008). These academic positions have relevance for policy and practice. It can be argued that there is a reality of gangs that is independent of our theories about them, as these theories can only ever be partial. In order for practitioners and policy makers to assist young and vulnerable people attain their potential, both micro and macro changes need to take place. In broader terms, the social capital of community networks needs to be enhanced and new models of moral redistributive economic policy need to be enacted. Therefore, policy and practices are required which are founded on new and robust evidence. This evidence, in conjunction with stakeholder knowledge, could lead to a realistic programme for collective action in both the micro and macro spheres. The aim of these collective actions being to reduce hardships in relatively deprived neighbourhoods and to curb the cultural mores for excess which can result in participation in illicit economies in a search for respect and reward, as well as responding to the issues of peer-to-peer exploitation exposed through County Lines. In short, we need to re-examine the relationship between theory, policy and practice in the context of the current UK gangs-discourse.  

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Last Updated: 20 December 2019


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Paul Andell works at the University of Suffolk as a Senior Lecturer in Criminology with research interests in gangs and drug markets. His previous roles were in Youth and Community Work, Youth Justice, Probation, Community Safety and Crime Policy.