Southend Council has created a new steering group to coordinate the fight against county lines, ensuring the two safeguarding boards, community safety partnership and health and wellbeing board (HWB) are working together. It has already led to a public awareness campaign being run and other projects are now in the pipeline. This case study is an example of how councils are tackling youth violence.
Southend has been on the frontline of the fight against county lines. As a coastal town just outside London, organised gangs have targeted young people to help them supply drugs.
Council Community Safety Unit Programme Director Simon Ford said: “County lines has become a big problem across the country. We have seen young children targeted here. It has been a really worrying development.
“Young people are being placed in desperate situations, feeling trapped and that there is no-one to help them. They become indebted to these gangs and are exploited, committing crimes to pay off debts.”
As part of the process of responding to the emerging trend, Southend decided to review how its approach was coordinated. There were four separate boards which were having input into county lines work – the community safety partnership, two safeguarding boards and the HWB.
Mr Ford said: “Each board has its own action groups and sub-groups. We realised there was no overall coordination and work was being duplicated. The police also had Operation Rapture, which was focused on gangs. We had various things happening, but it just wasn’t as effective as it should have been. People were not working together.”
The decision was taken in early 2018 to set up a violence and vulnerability steering group to coordinate the work. It is a joint sub group of all four boards, chaired by the chief executive and involving representatives from each.
Mr Ford said: “It meant for the first time we were able to put together a joint action plan with six key priorities, including data gathering, enforcement, protection and awareness raising.”
The impact has been immediate. Within a few months the new group had helped several projects to get off the ground.
One has been a campaign aimed at parents. See the Signs urges parents and carers to find out more about how these criminal groups operate, the language that is used and to be aware of any signs that their child may be involved, such as excessive texting and phone calls, going missing from home or school and unexplained acquisition of money, clothes and phones.
Outdoor and social media advertising has been used and a dedicated hotline number created. Taxi drivers, security guards and train staff have also been given advice on what to look out for.
Chief inspector Neil Pudney, District Commander for Southend, said the coordinated approach is helping to get an important message out there. “Young people can fall into gang lifestyles in different ways, but loving and vigilant parents can spot issues and get help before they develop. Gangs recruit young people by portraying a glamorous lifestyle, but the reality is far different.”
Mr Ford said the need for better data has become one of the key priorities. “We realised we just did not have a clear picture of activity – how many A&E visits there are or how many arrests have been made for example.
“We are beginning to develop a dashboard to keep track of all this. We want to report on it monthly so we can see clear trends and patterns and respond to them.”
If it works, Mr Ford, who sits on a Home Office task group for county lines, believes it could be deployed nationally. “Having a good handle of exactly what is going on is important if we are going to tackle this.”
How the approach is being sustained
The next big campaign will target recreational drug users, said Mr Ford. “There are people who use drugs recreationally on a Friday and Saturday night – a line or two of cocaine. We want to appeal to them.
“They are likely to be the sort of people who have a social conscience. They would not buy their trainers from a sweatshop in India, but they are simply unaware of where their drugs come from. They think it is some flash guy from Ibiza. But it’s not. Instead it’s exploited children from the place they live. We think we can have an impact on demand for these drugs.”
Mr Ford said the coordinated approach to county lines has also got them thinking about other areas they could apply the same principles to. “Domestic violence cuts across all the same areas so we are looking to see if we should do the same thing for that. It is becoming a really important way of working.”
Community Safety Unit Programme Director
Southend Borough Council