THE number of organised crime gangs operating in Yorkshire’s most rural county has rocketed in the past year, police figures show.
There are now 39 separate groups in North Yorkshire known to police, a 70 per cent increase on last year’s figure.
It is the highest rise in Yorkshire, with a significant part of the picture believed to be groups of burglars targeting high-value equipment at rural businesses.
But North Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Julia Mulligan, said she believed this showed the force was getting better at understanding and monitoring organised crime.
She said: “I think they have done a really good job in trying to understand what is happening here in North Yorkshire. I think we were in a bad place a few years ago. I don’t think we did understand. I think we have now got a much better understanding of the nature of serious and organised crime in our county.”
The impact of organised crime on the county is also likely to be far higher than these figures suggest, as criminal networks often travel from their urban bases to target vulnerable, isolated areas.
Thieves are increasingly setting their sights on quad bikes stored at farms and other rural businesses, with the number of thefts from one North Yorkshire district quadrupling in two years.
There were 47 quad bikes stolen in Craven in 2017, compared to 22 in 2016 and 12 in 2015.
Ms Mulligan said: “Part of the issue is security. People are not securing them. Having said that, you talk to some farmers and the levels they go to to secure their equipment are quite significant.”
North Yorkshire Police’s 17-strong dedicated rural taskforce are among those fighting back against the organised theft networks.
Inspector Jon Grainge, who leads the team, said: “What we see is the serious acquisitive crime aspect of it, so the theft of items of plant or machinery in particular, through organised gangs who travel into the county, stealing high-value items of machinery which belongs to generally small businesses.”
He said such thefts could have a devastating effect on smaller businesses, who could often ill afford the disruption caused by the loss of crucial machinery or the cost of its replacement.
“We see organised criminal gangs targeting more rural areas because they are more isolated,” he said. “They are vulnerable targets.”
And it was not only farms which fell victim, with rural pubs, cafes, garages and other businesses also targeted.
Insp Grainge said stolen vehicles and equipment would often be sold on by the thieves quickly and end up in the hands of wider networks with international links.
“They are getting shipped abroad to Eastern Europe, to Africa and to Arab states potentially as well, so that takes serious organisation,” he said.
North Yorkshire Police estimates that one in five crimes in its area are committed by people from outside the county, but Insp Grainge said he believed this would be even higher for serious thefts and burglaries. He said North Yorkshire could seem “enticing for people” from surrounding urban areas such as Middlesborough, Darlington, Bradford or Leeds because of its more affluent residents and good road networks.
To disrupt the organised crime networks, Insp Grainge said there were a lot of methods they could use. Often, officers from North Yorkshire Police team up with forces across Yorkshire, the North East and the North West on joint operations and the sharing of intelligence.
Insp Grainge said police could also work with other bodies, such as local authorities, to investigate other aspects of a criminal’s life.
The offender could be found to be committing benefit fraud or breaching the terms of a social housing tenancy, for example, and pursuing them over these matters would also serve to disrupt their organised crime activity, he said.