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County lines drugs blamed for Kent’s big rise in knife crime

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Nestled behind a hedge and covered in graffiti, the concrete slopes of Dartford skatepark are not the home counties’ most bucolic of sights.

Yet for some young people who have been using it since 2007 it might just be a lifeline at a time when a direct link has been drawn between rising knife crime and a decade of austerity that has decimated youth clubs and services across north Kent and nationally.

“There’s a sense of community here. If there’s something on their minds it’s also the sort of place where some of the younger kids feel they can can raise things with the older skaters,” said Chris Chambers, the owner of a local skate shop who credits skateboarding with helping to steer him away from a more troubled path earlier in his own life.

But cuts to youth services are just one factor which police, community workers and others cite for an often overlooked rise in knife crime outside London in counties like Kent, which has experienced a rise of 152% since 2010 according to ONS figures.

They include the spillover of violence from so-called county lines – drug dealing that involves urban gangs moving drugs and cash between city hubs and provincial areas – as well as London councils’ relocation of homeless families to outside the capital, in some cases being followed by the dangers from which the parents have sought to shield their children.


In Dartford, some longer-term users happen to talk of seeing increasing new faces at the skate park. While still regarded as a safe space, in December two teenagers were left bloodied and bruised after they were mugged and threatened with being stabbed.

In another north Kent town, incidents in which blades have been used include one in Rochester, where 20-year-old Matthew Cornelissen had a lucky escape after being stabbed three times last September when he and a friend were confronted by a group of eight youths while walking home from dinner.

His mother told of the impact the attack had on her son and their continuing unease that it might have been more than just an opportune robbery.

“It was so strange in a lot of of ways because he handed over his mobile phone when he was asked and was in process of handing over his jacket as well when one of them stepped forward and went as if to stab him in the chest,” said Lesley Gordon-Davey, who wants to see more uniformed police patrolling streets.

“Thank God he was able to turn away to shield himself and ended up being stabbed in his shoulder and twice in his left arm.”

While no one has been arrested in connection, the family were told by investigating officers that the attack could have been a form of gang initiation.

Quick guide

What is meant by ‘county lines’?

What is meant by county lines?

Operations in major cities seek new markets outside urban hubs for their drugs, primarily crack cocaine and heroin. The expansion of their networks into the regions often comes with exploitation.

Who are the victims of these operations?

Children and vulnerable adults are often coerced into ferrying and stashing the drugs. They can be homeless or missing people, addicts, people living in care, trapped in poverty, or suffering from mental illness or learning difficulties. Even older and physically infirm people have been targeted and officers have observed a gang member attending drug rehab to find potential runners. 

How do they target people?

Initially they can be lured in with money, gifts and the prospect of status. But this can quickly turn into the use of violence, sometimes sexual.

How prevalent are county lines?

National Crime Agency research shows police have knowledge of at least 720 county lines in England and Wales, but it is feared the true number is far higher. Around 65% of forces reported county lines being linked to child exploitation, while 74% noted vulnerable people being targeted. 

How many children are at risk?

Children without criminal records – known in the trade as “clean skins” – are preferred because they are less likely to be known to detectives. Charity The Children’s Society says 4,000 teenagers in London alone are exploited through county lines. The Children’s Commissioner estimates at least 46,000 children in England are caught up in gangs.

Assistant Chief Constable Nick Downing, head of the serious crime directorate for Kent police and Essex police, said: “People and groups may give themselves names. We monitor them very closely, but I would say that we don’t have a gang issue in Kent.

“What we do have is a drug issue from county lines coming in and we need to combat that.”

A different view of the potential threat posed by local gangs is taken among those working on projects designed to guide young people from knife crime, who cite the multi-agency Kent and Medway Gangs Strategy Kent and Medway Gangs Strategy. It warns of “a steady increase in the number of gangs operating across Kent and Medway – from mostly London based street gangs venturing into Kent to sell drugs, to the development of local ‘home grown’ gangs.”

“There is definitely influence from London gangs and a lot of young people in Kent are trying to replicate that lifestyle,” said one caseworker for the , which is running a project funded by the Home Office and by Kent police and crime commissioner to move vulnerable children away from county lines.

Skate park in Central Park, Dartford.

Dartford’s skate park is still regarded as a safe space. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The children involved are mostly local but gangs were increasingly preying on vulnerable youngsters in care, according to the same caseworker. Many are from deprived backgrounds, but some came from working families and had been attracted by the status involved.

Cash is meanwhile now coming into Kent to support efforts to prevent young people becoming involved in gangs and youth violence. It emerged last week that £1.3m will be shared by Kent county council, Medway council and police in Kent and London to deliver a two-year project to reduce the impact of gang activity.

While welcoming the money, it was an announcement that took some local bodies and individuals already working with young people by surprise. Nathan Ward, a vicar at St Margaret’s Church in Gillingham, described the announcement as reflecting the sort of joined up thinking which he said was needed.

“There is a problem but in no way are we like London. We are not at the OK Corral,” said Ward, whose church last year became the first in the country to secure funding (£29,915) from the Government’s Community Fund for a project with partners to tackle knife crime across Medway Towns.

“We’re more like, for example parts of Essex which experienced the first shoots of gang activity 10 years ago but then had to play catch-up. We need to learn the lessons so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

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