The Great Ouse river flows slowly through the town’s historic centre. Majestic Victorian houses line pretty avenues and fast trains whizz to London in a little more than half an hour. Welcome to Bedford, where a keystone of public life is the Harpur Trust charity whose mission is to ‘inspire and support people in the borough to improve their lives’.
But there is another side to the town – and one that is shared by countless others like it. It is facing a terrifying wave of vice highlighted in a BBC analysis yesterday which reported that drug-related crime is increasing in many small towns and villages as it falls significantly in cities.
This starkly shows the challenge faced by Home Secretary Priti Patel who has pledged a return to zero-tolerance policing. Signalling an uncompromising stance, she has declared: ‘Any form of drug use has a corrosive impact on people and communities. You don’t turn a blind eye to it.’
The Great Ouse river flows slowly through Bedford’s historic centre (pictured). Majestic Victorian houses line pretty avenues and fast trains whizz to London in a little more than half an hour
She could have been talking about Bedfordshire. For here, almost one in ten of people aged between 18 and 59 regularly take illegal substances, according to a police report. They spend £113 million a year on cannabis and the ‘middle-class dinner party treat’ cocaine, both of which are on sale almost round the clock.
This part of rural Britain, and many others, have become unwitting hotbeds of crime fuelled by young drug-runners travelling here to hard-sell their wares (and collect the cash spoils for their gang masters).
It is a phenomenon called ‘county lines’, defined by the National Crime Agency as how criminal gangs expand sales into smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers and, meanwhile, exploiting children to peddle the drugs. ‘Go to Bedford station early in the morning and you’ll see teenage drug-runners getting on trains to London after a night selling their stuff in the town,’ a police officer who knows the area well told the Mail.
‘They are in pricey trainers and peering at mobile phones. They are not in school uniform like the other kids travelling at that time. That evening, they will be back on the train into Bedford with more drugs to sell.’ Detective Chief Superintendent Mark Lay, a national expert on the rise of county lines, and Bedfordshire police’s head of Serious Organised Crime, says there are 34,000 drug-users in his county. ‘Drugs markets now operate in our urban towns and have permeated our countryside, too. The rise of county lines have made getting drugs easier and, even in rural communities, people can often buy them 24/7.’
Michael Higginson (left, with his brother Tom who also suffered a drugs related death) died in 2018 in Bedford with different drugs in his body. His aunt has since discovered that the dealer who sold him drugs that night was just 19 years old, and believes that among his sidekicks was a boy of 13
With the drugs frenzy has come violent warfare as young runners, paid £100 a day or more by gangs, clash over territory.
Bedfordshire, says Mr Lay, has more knife crime than major conurbations such as Greater Manchester and Merseyside. In the east of England, it is high in an unenviable league for gunshot injuries linked directly to county lines.
In Bedford, those statistics hide awful human suffering, such as the deaths of two brothers caught up in this world. How the once-peaceful English heartland has changed.
This month a parliamentary committee warned of a ‘social emergency’ caused by spiralling youth violence linked to county lines. It said the crisis is driven by drug users getting a 24-hour ‘dial a dealer’ service. The business model of using young runners means a Mr Big can peddle huge quantities of drugs without ever meeting a customer, thus reducing the risk of being picked up by police.
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield blamed county lines for a surge in children under 13 taken into state care to stop them transporting and selling drugs for gangs.
The youngsters, some just 12, target rural towns and villages from the Lake District to the Cotswolds to the South Coast seaside resorts. The National Crime Agency estimates that one county lines mobile phone number can generate income of £800,000 a year. And the ringleaders have become very rich. Recently, it emerged that police are to auction the possessions bought from the £175,000 gains of 30-year-old Stefan Miller, the jailed kingpin of a county lines operation. He bought £13,000 of designer trainers and shoes and an 18-carat Rolex watch worth £27,450.
Miller used two boys, aged 14 and 16, as drug runners to take cocaine and heroin to Cheltenham and Gloucester from London. The boys were put up in hotels and provided with taxis in the two towns, but police say Miller controlled the county line from his home area of Wandsworth. Last month, 16 Londoners linked to a gang called ‘67’ were jailed for using young runners to ferry hard drugs to towns in Kent, Surrey, Berkshire and Hampshire.
They established four county lines – named Jeezy, SI, Pepsi and AJ – to run the illicit business. Some of the gang boasted of having weps (guns) and skengs (knives), the lyrics used in drill songs which glamorise violent drug crime.
Home Secretary Priti Patel (pictured during a visit to the Port of Dover last week) has pledged a return to zero-tolerance policing
A particularly nasty part of county lines is ‘cuckooing’, where gangs set up local distribution hubs for young runners to collect drugs and answer mobile phone calls in the homes of desperate drug addicts. In many cases, the addicts are ‘paid’ in drugs by their new (and unwelcome) lodgers – hence the name cuckoo – which reinforces their addiction and, therefore, gang dependence.
This modus operandi is well known to Bedfordshire Police, which is the first force to reveal details about the number of drug users in its area and the link to county lines. It says the most popular buy is cannabis (80 per cent) followed by cocaine (29 per cent) and other Class A drugs including heroin. Ecstasy represents 18 per cent and amphetamines five per cent of the market.
A quarter, or even more, of customers are believed to be in regular work. For £40 people can buy a gram of coke, say the police. Others mix a cocktail of drugs, including amphetamines, that can kill.
Evidence of this never-ending supply chain came in a court case in June. A 21-year-old from Croydon, south London, was jailed for four and half years after operating in Bedford. Abdirizak Alassow was the mastermind of a gang linked to a phone number which sent ‘mailshots’ advertising drugs for sale across the town.
Ewa Wabasemba, 20, from Wandsworth, south London, was recently sentenced to three years in a young offender institution. He was found in Bedford with 14 wraps of cocaine and heroin, £326 in cash and four mobile phones. He claimed the drugs were for his own use but in court it was proved he was working in a county lines operation.
Within a train-horn’s sound of Bedford station is Alexandra Road – a shabby street with multi-occupation houses. It has a couple of drinking clubs where, after dark, girls of the night pick up customers, charging £20, on a corner next to pizza and kebab shops. It is the sort of place where ‘cuckooing’ goes on and drug-runners from London can find customers easily when they step off the trains.
At a property here in February, police arrested five men and found numerous bags of heroin, drug paraphernalia, a knife and a crossbow. While officers were searching the place, a boy of 17 turned up suddenly, carrying a weapon. It was a successful raid by police trying to stop the violence and misery caused by county lines.
A 21-year-old from Croydon, south London, was jailed for four and half years after operating in Bedford. Abdirizak Alassow (pictured during his arrest) was the mastermind of a gang linked to a phone number which sent ‘mailshots’ advertising drugs for sale across the town
Few know of this misery more than Joy Brealey, who runs a thriving picture framing factory and shop in Bedford selling all over Britain. Last year, her nephew Michael died with different drugs in his body.
The 44-year-old was living with his mother in a smart part of the town. He was found dead in his bed at around one in the afternoon after having gone out in the middle of the night. He had answered a message on his phone, found by his family afterwards, which said ‘I’ve got a nice mix of stuff for you here, Michael. Come over.’
His aunt, Joy, says that after his death his family found his three mobile phones with ‘practically every drug-dealer in Bedford on’. She has since discovered that the dealer who sold Michael drugs that night was just 19 years old, and believes that among his sidekicks was a boy of 13.
After Michael’s death, she alerted the police about all his phones and wrote to a police hotline on Facebook where officers were appealing for information. She was to be disappointed. Now she complains that the three phones have never been looked at by the police, who told her to ‘pop them in when you are passing’.
Michael’s story is a telling example of the lethal drug culture in Bedford. His younger brother, Tom, also died of drugs and alcohol problems in the town, aged 27. The boys’ father, Mick Higginson, wiped tears from his eyes while telling us about his lost sons as he sat with his supermarket worker partner, Ange Randall.
She said: ‘Drugs here have become the norm. In the park nearby, you can see dealers meeting buyers, who are black, white, all classes and all ages. I have watched the hand-over. It’s done in a second.’
After Michael’s death, Ange also wrote a Facebook message to the police hotline. It said: ‘We feel let down by the system. We are good, hard-working, tax-paying people who have been robbed of a beautiful person from our family. We are left picking up the broken pieces of our lives, while the scum walk free to do it all over again.’
She and Mick, 67, agree it was Michael falling in with the wrong crowd that led him into drugs. After leaving school, he worked at his aunt’s picture framing factory but gave up the job because he began being late for work or not turning up.
His descent into anti-social problems started aged 16 or 17 when, with friends, he began sniffing aerosols in the garage. His delivery driver dad, who came to Bedford from Lancashire and is now retired, says that from aerosols it was cannabis and then hard drugs including heroin.
Drugs took over the life of his son, who he once hoped might become a historian.
Michael did go on a rehab programme and exchanged heroin for methadone. With his life getting back on track, he was given a housing association flat in Bedford of his own. All went well, for a while.
Then the drug dealers found him and, as Mick and Ange explain, they never let go.
They kept visiting him on any excuse. They called in late at night for a cup of tea. They offered Michael drugs again. Then they moved in and turned his flat into a drug den, supplying him and other users. It was a classic ‘cuckooing’ operation.
Bills went unpaid and the place was a mess. A few years ago, Michael moved to his mother’s home where he was later to be found dead. But he could never really escape the drug gangs. His mobile phone would ring and it was a dealer or, perhaps, a county lines runner offering him heroin or cocaine or anything he wanted.
Michael’s inquest report says, in understated language, it was drug-related. And now, at Mick and Ange’s home, there is a small polished wood box on the shelf in the sitting room. It contains the ashes of both Michael and Tom. As their father Mick said of his sons: ‘I could not bear to bury them in the earth of Bedford, the town that killed them, thanks to drugs.’