Intolerance, crime and fear – life on the urban fringe
The creeping tide of
urbanisation across the
south-east of England has
brought with it arson,
vandalism and an
intolerance of rural life to
the regions farmers.
Jonathan Riley reports and
talks to two farmers living
on the edge
THE explosion in rural crime began in the south-east in the mid-1980s when house and road building in the region took off, says the NFU Mutual, the UKs largest rural insurance company.
Its data shows that 20 years on the south-east still has the second highest rural crime rate in the UK costing £2m a year in theft alone.
And the situation could get worse as more development takes place, says the firms Tim Price.
Over the next 14 years the government wants more than 200,000 dwellings to be built on green field sites in the south-east planting more communities on the doorsteps of farms.
"But rather than feeling part of these new communities farmers feel increasingly isolated and misunderstood by the incoming population of commuters that desert the countryside during the day," says Mr Price.
"With fewer farm workers and without generations of local knowledge, the countryside intelligence network has broken down and left the criminals to pick off farms at their will."
The Country Land and Business Associations regional director, John Biron, says the situation is forcing many farmers to breaking point. "Drug users and criminals have been forced out of the town centres by closed circuit television and farmers and landowners have to suffer everything from being shot at to verbal abuse from people who move on to new developments."
But Sussex Police believe rural crime can be beaten. The forces Malcolm Scott has spent 22 years fighting rural crime in the region and he told farmers weekly that farmers could play a key role in a rural crime intelligence network.
Farmers could regularly hand in a list to their local police station with registration details of vehicles seen stopped in lay-bys, he says. "If everybody did that with an accurate description of the vehicle – make, model and colour, and a detailed description of the driver we could build a picture of vehicle movements across the region that could be used as evidence." *
1998 1999 2000
UK overall 16.2 16 14.9
South-east 1.7 1.9 1.9
Developers want to move me off
"It is not the criminals that have ruined my farming life it is the developers who want to get their hands on prime building land.
"I have rented this farm for 40 years and I have a number of landlords. But land here sells for between £300,000 and £1m/acre. When you have those sorts of figures flying about it doesnt take long before you attract greedy people who will stop at nothing to get a share of the money.
"Developers put enormous pressure on my landlords. Some have held out and allowed me to continue. Others have succumbed to the pressure, which is growing all the time.
"I wouldnt agree to the sale of one parcel of land. So developers sent their cronies round who threatened me with violence. They came on the hour every hour starting at nine in the evening and finishing at three in the morning. It was terrifying. They hammered on the door trying to force me to sign documents giving up my rights as a tenant of the land. After a week of that you dont know whether youre coming or going. Id had it. I couldnt even see straight. Im so ashamed of myself for giving in but I had to sign the forms just to get them off my back.
People say why dont I leave. But I havent got any money to buy my own place so Im trapped here while the land I loved disappears around me forever."
Sense of freedom went when housing estates were built
"One of the reasons we started farming 30 years ago was the sense of freedom. It seemed we were miles away from anywhere and we went about our business untroubled.
"That feeling went when the housing estates were built along the northern flank of the farm in the mid-1980s. Now we feel like we are being watched day and night and that is the worst part of farming on the urban fringe.
"I dont like to admit to being scared, but fear of whos out there is now part and parcel of living here. I would swear we are watched constantly. How else could tens of thousands of £s worth of equipment get stolen the minute your back is turned? How else could three to four cars a week be dumped and burned in the gateway five minutes after you lock up for the night and walk away?
"We had a phone call one morning saying that our sheep were out. I went to investigate.
"Locks had been cut off gateways with portable grinders. One of the fences had been smashed down. I followed the tyre tracks back across the field towards the farm buildings and to a second fence. It had also been smashed down and beyond that the tracks went on across another field to a wire fence next to the yard. That had been cut. It was then that I looked up and noticed the whole roof of one of the outbuildings had been dismantled during the night packed up and driven away.
"I walk around with a pocketful of keys and the last job every night is to lock us into our farmstead. Its like a prison but the criminals are on the outside trying to get in."