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EXCLUSIVE: Has true scale of county lines drug dealing been underestimated?

STREET DEAL: All 45 UK police forces are reporting county lines activity

THE true scale of the "county lines" drug dealing epidemic blighting the UK may have been underestimated, police have admitted.

New figures suggest a National Crime Agency (NCA) estimate on the number of mobile phone hotlines used by cross-border drug dealers across the country could be unrealistically low.

Katy Bourne, police and crime commissioner for Sussex, revealed that in her county alone there are believed to be around 200 drug 'deals lines' in use - while the NCA has estimated the total number nationally at just around 1,500 to 2,000.

County lines involves criminals in London and other cities sending dealers to suburbs, market towns and coastal resorts, to feed growing habits, while risking violent turf wars.

Organised crooks coerce, often vulnerable, people and children as young as 12 into selling drugs for them in far-flung areas using the dedicated mobile phone numbers.

A report from the police, education, care and probation inspectorates warned this week even private school pupils were being groomed as they were less likely to be stopped by police.

BUSTED: Cash and phones uncovered on a Gloucestershire county lines raid

All 45 police forces in England and Wales plus the British Transport Police have reported county lines activity in the past two years and anti-slavery legislation is now being used to combat the menace.

If the NCA estimate of up to 2,000 were correct, it would mean about 10 per cent of them were being used in Sussex alone.

In evidence to a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into serous violence, Ms Bourne wrote: "The demand from county lines remains high in Sussex with over 200 unique lines requiring assessment and analysis."

Sussex is thought to have about 52 active county lines drug gangs selling crack cocaine, heroin and cannabis through these hotlines.

A statement from West Sussex County Council to the inquiry showed the changes county lines had brought to the south coast region.

It said: "We have already begun to provide training on child exploitation and modern slavery to frontline staff, including social workers."

The Met Police refused to release its individual figures, but a spokesman said: "I think all experts on county lines have consistently said the numbers given are an underestimate as it is a very difficult thing to put a number on.

NCA are leading on this – they are in the process of creating a comprehensive map of county lines across England and Wales."

Essex Police is another force with a seemingly disproportionate amount of county lines activity.

A spokeswoman said: "Intelligence suggests we currently have approximately 134 drug dealing gangs operating here.

"That number has stayed stable over the last six months, but by their ever-changing nature and our continued policing activity to target them, the number of county lines can change on a daily basis."

She did not give figures for the number of deals lines they were thought to be using, but some gangs do use more than one.

NCA estimates on the number of hotlines has more than doubled in 12 months.

A year ago the estimated number of deals lines was 740, but throughout the year it rose to 1,000, then 1,500.

An NCA spokeswoman admitted numbers were continuously rising since the opening of a County Lines National Coordination Centre last month which is keeping a better track on intelligence.

She said: "This is an evolving picture and with the coordination centre now giving a national focus on intelligence, rather than local forces, the number of lines could change."

Former Met Police detectives dismissed NCA estimates as wildly low.

One former senior drugs squad detective said: "‘My understanding is that they now estimate there are tens of thousands of such gangs. Anyone selling drugs at any level is labelled a crime gang."

DANGER: Police regularly find machetes, acid and guns during county lines raids

Another former Met detective, who tweets under the pseudonym Frank Matthews about police matters, said: "The numbers are just plucked out of thin air.

"I understand there are 4,000 children in London alone involved in county lines."

The fightback against the border-hopping dealers continued this week.

On Tuesday, Essex Police arrested 24 people linked to a county lines gang in the west of the county after a six month investigation.

North Yorkshire Police arrested six people in five days this week, some of whom travelled from Manchester and Liverpool.

Cornwall Police closed a crack house in Newquay that was being used by gangs from northern England.

Meanwhile, Norwich Council is considering training councillors and can drivers on how to spot signs of people involved in county lines activity.

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