FROM the outside, Basingstoke is an affluent Home Counties town with a thriving business community undergoing an exciting new era of redevelopment.

Yet under the surface, the town is grappling with the often hidden problem of county lines - where London dealers exploit local people to traffic drugs. 

This has come to a head in recent weeks following the murder of Bromley teenager Taylor Williams, who died after he was stabbed in Shooters Way, South View, on August 31. 

It is believed he was targeted as part of a plot to steal drugs from him. 

Just one week after the incident, riot police in Rooksdown raided a property after a 16-year-old boy from Luton had forced a vulnerable owner out of her home. 

This practice, known as cuckooing, is a trend understood to be connected to county lines activity where vulnerable local people see their homes transformed into drug dens.

In light of this recent activity, the Gazette is shining a spotlight on the issue to reveal how it is affecting people in the community. 

This week, we have spoken to Hampshire Constabulary to highlight the resources going into tackling the problem. 

Despite Basingstoke recently experiencing a rise in incidents regarding drug dealing, police say it is not local issue but a national one. 

Chief Inspector Stuart Ratcliffe told the Gazette that out-of-town dealers were attracted to Basingstoke because it is an affluent area. 

Ch Insp Ratcliffe said: “We need to be aware of the national issue surrounding this and because it is such a complex operation there is lots of partnership work that goes into that.

“A common pattern that we see is that these networks operate from outside of the area and take advantage of vulnerable people or local drug users by promising them free or cheap drugs and it starts up a circle of dealing.” 

The chief inspector said that many people may believe this is a victimless crime but said vulnerable people were being taken advantage of, as well as the young people who get involved in the gang culture.

He added: “We have seen that the people that get dragged into this situation are young people who have been groomed or have fallen into drug debts themselves. 

“Here in Basingstoke, our officers are doing what we can to touch base with people we know who are vulnerable or at risk of being taken advantage of and making sure there is a police presence which acts as a deterrent.”

He continued: “This is a really complex issue and there is no one size fits all when it comes to tackling this, and there is a lot of information that needs to be complied, so even though at times it may seem like there isn’t much going on but we are doing a lot behind the scenes.

“There is a huge amount of partnership work which goes into this, whether that’s through the police, the local council or housing associations we all pull our resources to achieve a common goal.” 

When asked how the police are helping to create a safer community, Ch Insp Ratcliffe said that being able to show success rates like with the WEZ network (see side panel) and issuing closure orders. 

He added that residents can also help by being “good neighbours” and checking in with residents who they might believe to be vulnerable. 

Chief Insp Ratcliffe said that all of the forces “successes” in regards to convictions or arrests surrounding drug deals in the borough have all come from a simple bit of information from the public. 

He added: “We can’t investigate what we don’t know. The more the community can share with us, the more chance we have to tackle these problems. If the community can share information with us, then we can act." 

Community fears 

RESIDENTS have described feeling too afraid to go out at night while others expressed concerns about their children growing up in areas where crime is on the rise. Last month there were 338 crime incidents in Oakridge, compared to just 29 in Old Basing

“It’s absolutely terrible,”one resident, who lives in Oakridge told the Gazette this week.

They said: “If a crime was committed the police almost always knew who to go to, but that was before it all exploded.”

However, he says that he feels pretty safe, but his son worries more, asking him to always ring him once he’s made the five minute walk home after visiting.

Another man who lives in the same area, says: “It’s very scary living in Basingstoke the moment.”

He cites an incident two years ago where a 15-year old girl was raped on a nearby path. “Being a parent, living in this area for quite a long time, the situation is really making people very scared.”

Meanwhile in South View, nearby to where young Taylor Williams was stabbed last month, one resident feels that it’s a more wide-spread problem.

“I don’t think there is any area in Basingstoke that doesn’t have problems at the minute,” said Kim.

“I don’t feel scared. I walk around after dark and I feel the same as I have always felt.”

One of the big issues raised up by residents is street lights being switched off overnight in parts of the town.

According to Councillor Colin Regan, this has caused issues in his ward of South Ham.

Basingstoke Police had to give advice to residents after a number of vans were broken in to and tools stolen.

“It worries the residents,” Cllr Regan said. According to him, elderly people are waking up at night because of what they hear outside.

“The police haven’t got the resources to deal with it.”

Last year, a 41-year old man was stabbed in the chest in Russell Howard Park, and a “large-scale” police investigation followed.

“It is not so bad lately but the only action that is taken is when it flares up into something more serious,” Cllr Regan told the Gazette.