There are few industries more vital to the South West economy and our wellbeing as agriculture. Not only do these relatively small and often family-run businesses employ a huge number of people directly and in related industries in the region but they also look after the countryside and take on the rather important role of feeding us all.
Because of the vital place they have in society I am keen to make sure farms and businesses in rural areas are well protected from thieves who threaten livelihoods by taking equipment.
The evidence suggests that there is a significant amount of work to do in this area. This year’s Rural Crime Survey, put together by the National Rural Crime Network, tells us that 52% of Devon and Cornwall farmers and rural-specific business owners had been a victim of crime in the previous 12 months, with 26 per cent saying they were fairly or very worried about becoming one in the future.
And there’s a perception that policing in local communities is poor, with only 27 per cent of respondents nationwide say their local police were doing a good job – 11 per cent lower than when the same question was asked in 2015. In Devon and Cornwall, the survey revealed that 26 per cent felt their local police were doing a good job.
These crimes must not be taken lightly, the average financial impact of each one on rural-specific business owners is £4,800, 13 per cent up on 2015.
I am also concerned that an inaccurate picture is being created because not enough rural crimes are being reported – perhaps because farmers and businesspeople in these areas do not think they will be taken seriously. This in turn makes it hard to plan or allocate resources properly.
Fortunately the issue is on the national agenda, and I have alerted MPs in our region to the fact that an All Parliamentary Group on Rural Crime is being held later this month where the findings and recommendations of the survey will be discussed.
Locally there is a lot of work going on to reassure rural communities that their complaints will be taken seriously and offenders pursued.
My office has supported the setting up of a Rural Crime Team to address the particular challenges that affect our natural environment and those people living in the countryside. This consists of a small team of dedicated officers – one sergeant and two PCs supported by a specialist problem solver – to develop the skills and knowledge they need.
As in other areas, rural crime is not something police can solve alone. The crime survey showed that a large amount of dissatisfaction and concern in the countryside related to things like flytipping and speeding, so partnering with local authorities and local communities though initiatives like Speedwatch will be the way we’ll be able to make a realistic difference in these areas.
In Devon and Cornwall we’re lucky to have the support of a dedicated team of Special Constables. In the past these volunteers with full police powers have run night-time operations on the Devon/Somerset border with the aim of disrupting organised gangs who use remote rural roads to move stolen property like quad bikes.
Now the Specials have set up a rural engagement team to focus on addressing some of the issues that affect our rural and isolated communities.
Tackling wildlife crime in particular often requires specialist skills and knowledge that are not generally catered for in general police duties. The recently published National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) strategies for Rural Affairs and Wildlife crime will help drive and coordinate this activity locally whilst having the leadership from the national level from Deputy Chief Constable Craig Naylor, the NPCC lead for this portfolio.
It is in all our interests that rural communities are able to thrive and flourish. I hope that the results of the next rural crime survey show a more encouraging picture and look forward to working with the force to make that aspiration a reality.
Devon and Cornwall Police runs a Farm Watch scheme which operates in a similar way to a Neighbourhood Watch scheme. The scheme is run for, and by, members of the farming community and is supported by the police. To find out more or to set one up in your area visit www.devon-cornwall.police.uk/farmwatch
Anyone wanting to report rural crime can do so via 999 if an emergency or via the 101 service in a non emergency. A dedicated rural Crimestoppers reporting line, for reports about machinery theft, livestock theft , large-scale, industrial fly-tipping and hare coursing only and run in partnership with the NFU, can be contacted on 0800 783 0137 or via an online form at https://forms.theiline.co.uk/ruralcrimereportingline.
If you’re interested in setting up a Community Speedwatch scheme in your area a description of the scheme can be found at www.devon-cornwall.police.uk/advice/on-the-road/speed-watch/.