Article: The End of the Line? The Impact of County Lines Drug Distribution on Youth Crime in a Target Destination

Author: Paul Andell and John Pitts | Tags: , , ,

Paul Andell and John Pitts explore, through local research, young people's gang involvement and subsequent engagement with the national and international drugs trade.

This article describes a Rapid Assessment Exercise commissioned by a local authority to inform an evidence-based multi-agency response to the involvement of vulnerable children and younger adolescents in illicit drug trafficking. The research was commissioned by a local authority in an English County Town, The researchers analysed relevant quantitative data held by social welfare, health, educational and criminal justice agencies. Interviews were conducted with professionals from these agencies and three key informants previously involved in the illicit drugs trade. Two focus groups were conducted with professionals and three with gang-involved and gang-affected children and young people. The quotations in this article were all derived from these individual interviews and focus groups.  The article considers whether the emergence of this problem is simply a result of local contingencies or whether it represents an instance, and a moment, in the evolution and transformation of, the English street gang and the ‘County Lines’ model of drug distribution. In an attempt to answer this question the article considers three models of gang and drug market evolution and assesses their relevance to developments in the Town.

Street Gangs and Criminal Business Organisations

In the early part of the 21st century, academics such as Hallsworth and Young (2004) and Gordon (2000) produced typologies designed to clarify the differences between delinquent peer groups, street gangs and criminal business organisations. These timely interventions injected some rigour into debates in UK academia about whether ‘street gangs’ existed and, if they did, how they should be defined (Pitts, 2008; 2012). Fast-forward a decade and a half and now the conceptual and practical focus has shifted from how we tell these groupings apart to the connections between them.

This shift has been precipitated by real changes in the way illicit drugs are distributed in the UK. But beyond this lies the question of whether these shifts simply represent a change in the business model of illicit drug distribution or more profound changes in the prevalence, organisation and functions of street gangs outside the metropolitan cities.

County Lines

In County Lines, Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017 (2017) the National Crime Agency (NCA) describes how street gangs, and other organised crime groups, exploiting vulnerable younger adolescents distribute narcotics to 81% of the 43 police areas in England.  A County Line is a telephone line set up by a gang in a city to sell Class-A drugs, normally heroin, crack cocaine and skunk, to users in out-of-town locations (Pitts 2008, Ruggerio, 2010, Hallsworth 2013, Andell and Pitts 2013, Harding 2014). The NCA describe these groups as ‘Urban Street Gangs’, ‘Organised Crime Groups’ or ‘Dangerous Dealer Networks’. Coomber (2015) refers to them as ‘Second Generation Street Gangs’.

Today, these drug dealing networks span the country and, as the NCA definition of County Lines suggests, the dividing line between street gangs and organised crime, the retailers and the wholesalers, has become blurred as older gang members have evolved into middle-market drug wholesalers. As Julie Ayling (2011:21) observes:

While most street gangs are temporary and disorganized, some have institutionalized, and a number of these show signs of evolving into more serious criminal enterprises, becoming more networked, technologically savvy and internationalized, less visible, more predatory and sometimes more violent. The boundaries that researchers have drawn between gangs and other types of criminal groups, particularly organized crime, are becoming blurred.

This proliferation of dealing networks has been facilitated in part by the concentration of gang-involved young people from different regions in the same prisons and Young Offender Institutions, and by schemes designed to relocate gang members at risk of death or serious injury at the hands of rival gangs, or their own, a long way from the source of the threat. Members of metropolitan street gangs have also travelled to out-of-town locations and taken up residence with, usually vulnerable, local young women in order to orchestrate the local drugs business on behalf of their gang.

The young people who deliver the drugs are typically aged between 12 and 17. These youngsters are often known to Children’s Services and Youth Offending Teams but because their absences from home and school are usually fairly brief, they may not be reported to Safeguarding professionals or the Police (Sturrock & Holmes, 2015). The gangs use children and younger adolescents because they are easier to control and, being young and having few, or no, previous convictions, they are less likely to be known to the police.

County Lines have become a major conduit for illicit drug distribution in England for four main reasons: because big city drug markets are becoming ‘saturated’ (Windle & Briggs, 2015); because the competition with other local gangs has become too brisk and too dangerous (Pitts, 2016); because the dealers have become too well known to the local police; and because the gangs anticipate that they will meet with less resistance from the police and local dealers in new ‘Country’ locations (Drugwise, 2017).

Drugs and the Town

Until around 2012 the major source of illicit drug supply in the Town was user-dealers who typically, travelled to a metropolis to buy drugs for themselves and their friends and associates.

The family ‘restaurant’ … by getting access to that and actually being the one that comes to that door … that rapport requires a level of trust. The dealer is trusting you not to give his name out and not to tell anybody where he lives. You trust him. A decent product a decent wage a decent price. (Ex-Drug Dealer)

Ironically, it seems that the effective policing of these dealers may have ‘paved the way’ for the arrival of the metropolitan gangs.

The town had a much smaller network of dealers, and dealer groups and, it was more controllable from an intelligence point of view. You had fewer people and fewer groups to focus your intelligence research on and this made it easier to target them. When they were effectively removed from the town (as a result of police enforcement action) and were no longer active in (the Town) this opened up a void which had to be filled somehow, because the demand was still there. (Police Officer)

At around this time, two groups of teenagers involved mainly in property crime and various forms of anti-social behaviour, both of which were loosely connected with an established local ‘crime family’, were joined by family members from London who were involved in drug dealing. This was a time when County Lines were proliferating and during this period at least three London gangs and others from Liverpool, Bradford, Birmingham, Essex and Hertfordshire were targeting the Town.

And then all different types of people, would try their hand at dealing drugs in the Town. And, some were good at it, and some weren’t, and that was when we started seeing groups coming up from London, using youngsters. (Police Officer)

County lines from London began supplying both of the groups. They used younger adolescents to transport the drugs from London and they sometimes put them into the ‘cuckooed’ houses of opiate users.[1]

Lads from London rarely use crack or heroin; it’s very much about the business for them. They come from various boroughs. South East is easiest for them, it used to be Woolwich CGM and Dockyard boys but they got busted. County lines are now more organised at the London end, they are very good at it. They have the right people for the right task. 14-17 year olds sitting on a parcel in (the Town), lots from Care homes, they sit in an address and older lads in hire cars recharge supplies and take away the money.  (Police Officer)

The new marketing model was very different:

What I see now is much more commercial. People coming out constantly ‘do you want this do you want that’. Yeah and that’s again about that pyramid selling technique you know but the family allegiance is still there. (Local Drug Dealer)

It’s much more dangerous.  I mean the new round is about the open market drug delivery … the phone comes out … mountain bike delivery or a closed market working from a house which with the old school dealer that would be his home. But when you’ve got an open market of ten hoodies on the corner, in a park, who would be replaced by ten the next day, what is your quality control or your customer service if it all goes tits up. So the big risk of going to somewhere like that is going to get robbed … And going to be ripped off. (Drug User)

However, whereas in other areas the purveyors of County lines simply ‘muscled-in’ on local dealers, because of the connection between the two groups and friends and family from London, the local groups agreed what was in effect a franchising deal in which they purchased the drugs from the London gangs which were then distributed in the Town, and eventually throughout the County by some of the Town’s more ‘vulnerable’ children and young people.

In what became the two gang-affected areas in the Town there was a sizeable indigenous population of socially disadvantaged children and young people, some of whom were, or had been, in the Care of the local authority and others who were known to the Youth Offending Service and/or had been consigned to a Pupil Referral Unit. The Town also had more than its fair share of out-of-county placements of young people who had proved ‘troublesome’ in their home authorities or who had been moved by ‘the authorities’ because their gang involvement had placed them in mortal danger. Between 2012 and 2015 the Town saw an influx of intermittently employed Romanian and Polish migrants and their children and between November 2014 and November 2015 there was a doubling of the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people being ‘looked after’. Other young people were also resettled in the Town upon release from a local Young Offender Institution.

However, there was an acute shortage of places to house them and many of the older adolescents were placed in ‘unsuitable’ hostels and B&B hotels, in the poorer parts of town adjacent to what were to become gang-affected neighbourhoods.  Some of these young people were already gang affiliates and although many were not, this was one of the places where the ‘Youngers’ who would distribute the drugs around the County were recruited.

An Ofsted inspection of Children’s Services in 2016, found that 39% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training of which 46% were aged between 19 and 21. A study undertaken in 2012 found that the Town was eighth out of 47 local authorities in the region in terms of youth unemployment and that between 2007 and 2012 the 16-24 year old unemployment rate had risen from 4.6% to 8.1%. This hike in unemployment was attributed to the closure of local businesses as well as cuts in local government services. At this time the local Chamber of Commerce reported that 1,600 young people in the county aged between 16 and 18 were not involved in any form of education, training or work and that more than 4,000 18 to 24-year-olds were unemployed. The predicament of these young people was compounded by cutbacks in staff and resources which led to the closure or shrinkage of youth services and the effective abandonment of face-to-face supervision of ex-offenders by the local Community Rehabilitation Company. Because of these factors, professionals working with these vulnerable young people described the advent of gang conflict variously as the result of a ‘perfect storm’, ‘an accident waiting to happen’ and a ‘slow-motion car crash.

Becoming a Gangsta

County Lines did not just update the marketing and distribution of illicit drugs, they also acted as the conduit through which ‘gangsta’ culture was insinuated into new locations. When the government’s Ending Gang & Youth Violence (EGYV) programme was launched in 2012 it targeted 30 gang-affected ‘local areas’, 19 of which were in London; by 2016 it was targeting 52, one of which was the Town.

The advent of County Lines appears to have been the catalyst for a cultural change which saw the two main ‘delinquent peer groups’ (Gordon, 2000) morph into street gangs. Gangsta culture may have been exemplified by the London ‘gangstas’ running the County Lines into the Town, but by that time it was ‘in the air’ anyway; in styles and practices absorbed from a prevalent globalised ‘gangsta’ culture (Hagedorn, 2008).

What I’m seeing is some of them aren’t just motivated by financial gain. It’s what we’re saying about the kudos, the respect, and it’s also in the way that they change into a character, that they’re perceived or expected to be. If you’re working for a County Line, you must act like this, you must think like this, you must to a certain extent look like this. (Local Drug Dealer)

Thus, what had begun as two largely mono-racial embryonic ‘delinquent peer groups’ (Gordon, 2000) became, within two years, much larger, stratified, multi-racial, street gangs/criminal business organisations with a clear hierarchy and division of labour. As Terence Thornbury (1998) has observed, the street gang, particularly if it is an extensive stratified entity orchestrated by adults involved in drug distribution, acts as an escalator, taking young people to a new and more serious level of criminal involvement. While the ‘delinquent peer group’ may act as a vehicle or context for the commission of offences, the severity of which is shaped by the proclivities of individual perpetrators, the gang facilitates the shift to different, and far more serious, levels of crime (Klein & Maxson, 2006).

There are 2 main crews A.Street and the Z.Boys. A.Street is more established; made up of mainly young white and Black men, (they have) ready access to London, (they) support (gang members) who are living and staying up here dealing under the A.Street banner. The Z.Boys are more young Black and Asian men. The Z.Boys used to be vehemently anti Class-A but now they’re openly dealing on estates. (Police Officer)

In 2017 the agencies involved in face to face work with young people in the two gang-affected neighbourhoods in the Town had identified 66 ‘gang members’ (37 affiliated to A.Street and 29 affiliated to the Z.Boys) although they believe that there are many more, as yet unidentified, affiliates. The two gangs are stratified. The Youngers are the runners who deliver the drugs. The Elders are, in effect, the middle managers supervising the drug distribution activities and, where necessary, directing the violence of the ‘Youngers’. The family occupies the top spot, orchestrating the actions of the Elders, some of whom are local, and some from London.

Gangs and Violence

The ‘gangsta’ lifestyle may be a preposterous caricature of human behaviour but it can have very real consequences, which are evident in the rapid escalation of violence between the two street gangs, A.Street and the Z.Boys. Ironically, the fierce animosity that developed between A.Street and the Z.Boys was, on the face of it, entirely unnecessary as far as drug distribution was concerned. However, the violence served to keep the gang ethos alive amongst the Youngers even though the Elders of the two gangs were surreptitiously doing business with each other when there was money to be made. The fact that life in the gang was predatory, dangerous and exploitative; as a means of recruiting young people to deliver drugs to end users, the prospect of gang involvement worked. It worked because gang involvement held the promise of the respect and recognition they were otherwise denied, while it valued and utilised the skills and abilities they brought which were denigrated in the conventional world. Jock Young writes:

Young men facing such a denial of recognition turn … to the creation of cultures of machismo, (specifically) to the mobilisation of one of their only resources, physical strength, to the formation of gangs and to the defence of their own ‘turf’.  Being denied the respect of others they create a subculture that revolves around masculine powers and ‘respect’. (Young, 1999:143)

Gang members’ sense of danger and excitement were heightened by conflicts played out on YouTube and the ever-present possibility that they might escalate into real life violent attacks.

Then groups of people went out to get the guy that posted this video and to get the guy that done it. But because it was talking about different generations of families it ended up being the fathers and uncles of these young boys who were only 13 and 14 who went after the guy who was, I think, in his early twenties and I think that he was involved with the shooting that happened in town, you know where the front doors were shot up? And I think that was all part of that, you know, older family members were then going round and then following it up. Because the young gang members had made the trouble. (Gang-affiliated Young Person)

Three Models of Gang Transformation


In their discussion of the shift from an ‘emergent’ gang problem to one that is ‘chronic’ Spergel (et al, 1994) argue that rowdy youthful behaviour in low income neighbourhoods may, under certain circumstances, quickly turn into ‘gang behaviour’ involving clashes with other gangs and groups as well as vandalism and graffiti in and around their schools and ‘hangouts’. James Densley and Simon Harding (2018) make a similar point, identifying a linear progression from formative groupings, engaged in recreational violence, through criminal activity to criminal enterprise and ultimately to organized crime and the effective control of certain neighbourhoods.

As the gangs become better organised this results in a rapid increase in membership as previously non-involved young people in the gang-affected neighbourhoods assess the relative risks and rewards of involvement and non-involvement. Assaults then become more frequent as the warring groups converge on shopping and recreation centres, sporting events, and other places frequented by young people. Some of this violence results in stabbings, shootings, and homicides. This describes with remarkable prescience what happened in the Town.

Spergel et al (1994) suggest that although the emergence of gangs may result primarily from the involvement of indigenous young people, it may also be augmented by the movement of low-income families out of inner cities, or as is the case of the Town, from other European countries, into communities which offer improved housing, employment opportunities, and a better life for their children. And, as has also been the case in the Town, some of these young people have sought the status and protection offered by gang membership, in part because of the hostility of indigenous young people towards them.


Spergel’s account of the transformation of the gang into an Organised Crime Group has some echoes of John Hagedorn’s description of the institutionalisation of the street gangs. He writes:

To say that a gang has institutionalized is to say that it persists despite changes in leadership (e.g., killed, incarcerated, or ‘matured out’), has organization complex enough to sustain multiple roles of its members (including roles for women and children), can adapt to changing environments without dissolving (e.g., as a result of police repression), fulfils some needs of its community (economic, security, services), and organizes a distinct outlook of its members (rituals, symbols, and rules). (Hagedorn, 2008:93)


The evolution of drug markets described by Curtis and Wendel (2014) has some similarities with what we know about developments in the Town in the recent period. In this model, user-dealers initially travel to the source of supply to stock-up and bring the drugs back to share with friends and acquaintances. As the circle of users grows, the local market becomes a target for ‘middle market’ suppliers who then sideline local user-dealers or co-opt them, through reward or coercion, as street dealers, while also drawing other local young people into this role as the market expands. This becomes a network formed and directed by a group of core organisers for a specific purpose. At the core of the network is a hierarchical component which acts as a steering mechanism to direct and coordinate the network as a whole.


Whereas two of the three models outlined above, Mutation and Institutionalisation consider the evolution of a single social entity over time, the third Incorporation is concerned with the way a smaller social entity is absorbed into and transformed by a larger one. This approximates to what we have seen in the Town where two emergent street gangs, composed of younger adolescents, have become linked into and now act as an extension of a metropolitan street gang which, over several years, has mutated into a de facto, institutionalised, criminal business organisation. One of the consequences of this has been an increase in the severity of the conflict between the two emergent street gangs which is now less about the defence of ‘ends’ and more about defending drug-dealing locations and networks. This conflict has recently led to cases of serious wounding and a murder.

The children and young people drawn into the gangs in the Town may have started out in ‘adolescent time-limited’ criminality perpetrated by a ‘delinquent peer group’ (Gordon, 2000), but gang involvement enabled them to step onto the escalator which, Thornbury (1998) suggests, carries them from the ‘street corner’ and sets them down on what Manuel Castells (1997) calls ‘the shop floor of the international drugs trade’.

If this is the case, it poses a different and more intractable problem than the one initially identified by those commissioning the research. And this raises the question of whether what is happening in the town is an expression of a particular constellation of local social and economic factors, exacerbated by the advent of County Lines, ‘the perfect storm’ to which some of the Town’s professionals refer, or a local manifestation of a larger mutation in national drug dealing networks. Put another way, are County Lines becoming an embedded, national, drug distribution system, which has both fostered and become reliant upon local, stratified, Third Generation street gangs?

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Last Updated: 26 January 2018


[1] A cuckooed house is one that is taken over by the gang members running County lines. The resident is normally a person addicted to class A. drugs (opiates) or a vulnerable young woman as a base to stay while they are in the area or as a place to ‘stash’ their drugs. The residents comply with the demands of gang members because of threats and/or the rewards of free class A drugs.


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