‘It’s incredible what they see’: housing associations take on county lines crime

Harriet Grant
Photograph: MB Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Housing associations are playing a growing role in tackling county lines crimes, using their knowledge of local communities to spot early signs of abuse and exploitation.

In the north west of England, the exploitation of young people by drug gangs – known as “county lines” crime – is a serious problem, not just in poorer areas but in York, Harrogate and places with good transport links. Now lawyers, housing associations and police are building networks of support to try and provide innovative solutions to the crisis.

One firm of solicitors told the Guardian they are increasingly contacted by housing associations for help in responding to exploitation, in particular “cuckooing”.

Cuckooing is a term for the takeover of a house owned by a vulnerable individual by drug gangs from outside the area to use as a base.

Darren Burton, head of housing at Forbes Solicitors, says housing associations have unique access to vulnerable communities.

Related: 'County lines' drug gangs tracking children via social media

“Our clients provide social housing to the most vulnerable in society, making their tenants a target for criminals. There will often be dozens of people visiting the target address, causing antisocial behaviour, dealing and using drugs.

“Housing associations are eyes and ears on the ground. More and more housing officers are reporting the signs of county lines and cuckooing to us. We are getting more calls than ever from housing associations asking for help with this issue.”

Burton points to high-rise blocks where vulnerable people, who may have learning disabilities or mental health problems, can become isolated. “They are befriended and next thing they know the flat is taken over and someone from the gang is sleeping in the box room. A housing association can join up the dots; they have always been there on the ground.”

Cities with good transport links, such as York, have a serious and growing problem with county lines crime. Photograph: Alamy

The ultimate legal sanction to stop cuckooing in a property is a premises closure, and these are on the rise across the UK. With the National Housing Federation, Forbes is lobbying for housing providers to have more statutory powers to close properties where there is evidence they are used for exploitation.

But while Burton and his colleagues do work with the police, they also try to use street-level knowledge of families to help in other ways.

“For example, one property we are looking at, it’s a hive of activity and the police know about it. So that might result in a premises closure. But we always start at the point that legal action is the last resort, particularly where there is a young person or family involved.

“We have a case where a young person is living with his grandfather because his parents can’t look after him due to drug problems of their own. He gets involved in postcode gangs and bringing knives and drugs into the property. His grandfather is worried but the local housing association know this family because they have been in the area a long time so are able to offer help.”

The firm has joined with Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Organised Crime Unit to build a network across the region looking for solutions.

In one case where a man was dealing drugs from a property, the firm worked with police and a housing association to get a partial closure, which allowed the man’s partner and children to keep using the home but barred other visitors.

Detective Inspector Andy Farrell of the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Organised Crime Unit told the Guardian that these partnerships are increasingly vital in fighting child exploitation.

“Across the region, areas with good transport links are vulnerable to cuckooing, like Harrogate, York and then over to the coastal areas of Scarborough, high areas of social deprivation. It’s really important now that we upskill housing associations and enhance their understanding of county lines. For example, we work with them on partial home closures so we don’t leave potential victims homeless.”

He believes the deeper understanding now of how exploitation works is helping to tackle the crime in the longer term. “Now we are actually understanding that children who may have been criminalised previously are actually being exploited. Let’s look at early intervention, look at siblings of those who are being exploited and how we can divert them; we will hopefully see that impact in the future.”

Peter Fahy was Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police until 2015 and is now chair of a housing association, Plus Dane Housing. He says housing associations have unusual access at a community level, in areas where cuts have removed many welfare checks.

Other issues spotted by housing officers include pop-up brothels, where criminals take over a house through short term lets or Airbnb. Photograph: Alamy

“I had always been struck as a police officer that the closest relationship was with the local housing association and their housing officers. We know that in our housing stock there are people who are incredibly vulnerable, the HAs will know who those vulnerable people are.

“For example, housing associations go into every property at least once a year to do a gas safety check and it’s incredible what they see. You have repair staff seeing child protection issues, or noting when elderly people are incredibly vulnerable. It’s about helping these staff understand the signs and know what to do about it.”

It is not just cuckooing and drug dealing that housing associations are seeing up close, Fahy says.

“Cuckooing is extremely worrying, but beyond that are other things like pop-up brothels. This is an extremely crucial housing issue. Criminals take over a house for a brothel through short term lets or Airbnb. These are operated from properties with very exploited people. It’s extremely hard to get them to speak, they have a fear of the exploiter reaching right back into their own home country or their family.”

Fahy acknowledges the problem is a huge and complex one. “Frontline staff are very fearful of the criminal groups involved. There has always been drug dealing, [but] what is different now is children are being used and exploited and the market is chaotic and crowded.

“There is a very high level of drug taking in our society. If you talk to youth charities they will say there is nothing we can do – kids are offered £1,000 a day to carry drugs and it’s hard to help them once they have got involved. There is little else for them to do in their communities.”