Best practice: tackling County Lines

Work with Offenders on a new report by Professor John Pitts

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation has just published a new report in their “Academic Insights” series looking at best practice in relation to County Lines drug dealing. The report was produced by Professor John Pitts and highlights how County Lines operations have moved to the country and expanded over recent years.

As all police forces now know County Lines are criminal networks based mainly in cities that export illegal drugs to one or more out-of-town locations. The organisers use dedicated mobile phone lines to take orders from buyers, and children and vulnerable adults to transport, store and deliver the drugs. County Lines organisers may use coercion, intimidation and violence (including sexual violence) to control this workforce.

Initially, the ‘Youngers’, the children involved, may be given money, phones or expensive trainers, but are then told they must repay this by working for the County Lines gang. Sometimes the ‘Elders’, the organisers, arrange for them to be robbed of the drugs they are carrying so that they become indebted. If they protest, they may be told to keep working to pay off the debt or they, and their families, will be subject to violent retribution. The ‘Youngers’, who deliver the drugs, risk being apprehended by the police, assaulted and robbed by their customers or by members of rival gangs.

Historically, most drug markets run by street gangs were concentrated in gang affected neighbourhoods or situated next to transport hubs. Around 2010 a combination of factors cause gang-related activity to “Go Country”. Local drug markets became saturated which led to an intensification of violence between rival gangs. While “Going Country” had been a minor sideline for drug gangs for some years, it now appeared to offer a solution to the dangers that gang members faced in local drug markets. The ‘Country’ option was also attractive because, out-of-town, the urban dealers and their runners met with less attention from the police and less resistance from local dealers. Moreover, successful police operations against local dealers had created gaps in the market which urban street gangs were only too ready to fill.

In the past decade the County Lines model has evolved. ‘Going Country’ has given the gangs far greater market reach and some of the organisers have moved permanently into the coastal and county towns where their business is done. This has allowed them to forge links with local criminal business organisations and recruit local children as runners who can market the drugs in their schools, colleges and neighbourhoods.


Professor Pitt describes the key components of successful multiagency responses to County Lines drug dealing, describing this approach as likely to be the most effective one. He lists some of the critical success factors which include involvement and integration of community members (particularly those who themselves or whose children have been involved in gangs) in the multiagency response and a careful mapping process. Mapping, which involves input from a wide range of professionals and community members, makes it possible to find connections between individuals who are either victims or perpetrators of sexual and criminal exploitation (with many young gang members being both). This mapping makes it easier to identify particular groups and individuals at risk. These include children from particular children’s homes and vulnerable long-term dependent drug users whose homes have been taken over or “cuckooed” by drug dealers.

Professor Pitt describes a pan-London multiagency service which aims to ensure that all children and vulnerable people identified as being exploited through County Lines are identified and protected through local safeguarding channels. The project also aims to identify those responsible for running the drug dealing operations and to bring them to justice.

As with most multiagency initiatives, clarity and understanding roles and responsibilities and a clear focus on information sharing are critical to success. In County Lines responses, the importance of engaging local communities is also clear, maximising credibility and capacity through the use of local resources and interventions and through the integration of community members, particularly gang-involved and gang-affected children.

Interested readers can find Professor Pitt’s report here.