ONE of the interviewees for our new book on Wiltshire is Minette Batters, the first woman president of the National Farmers Union. We asked her about the greatest concern for farmers, expecting her to say Brexit (whatever your position, Remain or Leave, farming is a major issue and the future is uncertain). She replied, without hesitation, that the biggest worry is rural crime.
We weren’t entirely surprised. As journalists working in this rural area for around 40 years, we have seen a frightening rise in rural crime – rustling cattle and sheep, thefts of farm machinery and property from remote farms and houses, fly-tipping – and a steady reduction in the number of police.
One small example: last year, we stopped for lunch and to walk our dog on a quiet lane along the South Dorset Ridgeway. As we set off on our walk, a transit-type van pulled up by a farm gate a couple of hundred yards away. We watched the driver get out, open the back doors and start to pull rolls of carpet out. He threw them over the gate, climbed over and pulled them further into the field towards the site of a bonfire. When he saw us, he drove off quickly, but not before we had got the vehicle number and the company name on the van. We also photographed the pile of old carpets (which appeared to be backed by rubber or a similar substance that would be dangerous and noxious to burn). We reported it to the county council. We were politely thanked and told that it would be up to the owner of the land – so the poor farmer would have to clear it up. We have no idea who owns the land and the county council couldn’t help us even though we had an exact description of the site. To say we were frustrated is an understatement.
The recently published 2018 National Rural Crime Survey, carried out between 18th April and 10th June by independent research company The Buzzz, reports that rural communities are “living on the edge” (the name of the report) – in fear of crime, unhappy with the police and feeling isolated and vulnerable
The perception of policing in rural communities is poor – only 27 per cent of respondents say their local police are doing a good job (11 per cent lower than the 2015 survey). The most common concerns are fly-tipping and speeding – 57 per cent had seen evidence of fly tipping in the past year, topping the list of offences, with speeding second at 32 per cent.
The survey found that crime, and the fear of crime, is leading to emotional strain and a loss of confidence, particularly among young people, families and farmers. A third of rural people believe that crime has a moderate or great impact on their lives. And the fear of crime is justified – 69 per cent of farmers and rural-specific business owners have been victims of crime over the past 12 months with 60 per cent saying they are fairly or very worried about becoming a victim of crime in the future.
Offences often go unreported because many residents and two-thirds of businesses in rural communities do not feel the police and criminal justice system understand the issues or do anything about them. There is a big cost to rural crime – the average financial impact of crime on rural-specific business owners is £4,800, 13 per cent up on 2015.
The survey concludes that rural communities are not understood, and services do not match need, that too often rural communities are considered safe and prosperous places, and that this preconception stops serious analysis of the genuine needs. The report says: “When the lid is lifted it is clear rural people and businesses are fundamentally misunderstood. We believe this is true of many areas, not just crime and policing, and further work needs to be done to assess community safety and service provisions policy across the board in a specifically rural context.”
As a result of this new survey, the Rural Crime Network has produced ten recommendations:
• Chief Constables need to change the policing of rural communities
• More work is needed to understand rural crime and its impact
• That understanding must be put into practice
• There needs to be more focus on farmers and specific rural businesses
• The network partners need to work together on organised crime
• The criminal justice system needs to understand rural communities
• Rural communities need justice to be done and be seen to be done
• Reporting crimes must be made easier
• Rural residents and businesses need more help on crime prevention
• Victims of fly-tipping must not be left to pay the price of others’ actions
Julia Mulligan, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire, who chairs the National Rural Crime Network, says the survey must be a wake-up call for those in positions of power: “These results are stark and worrying. Crime is up. Anger is up. Frustration is up. Trust is down. Those rating the police as good is down. With 10.3 million people living in rural areas, these are trends we can no longer ignore.”
This was echoed by Minette Batters, who told us that a rural crime strategy has been signed off by all forces, but there is “a massive lack of resources in policing, and a real need for more joined up policies.”