Current picture of County Lines criminality highlighted by expert in new research

A new study of current county lines criminality has been released by Professor Simon Harding who is Director of the National Centre for Gang Research, based at University of West London.

The National Centre for Gang Research has been established to study youth violence and its causes so it can inform and contribute

to the wider responses around the issue.

The Centre brings together key gang scholars and practitioners to research and expand its understanding on a range of key issues

affecting street gangs and group offenders, for example: the evolution of UK urban street gangs, changes in UK drugs markets, the

impact of social media on gang youth, gang dynamics, weaponisation, and how such issues have changed the nature of crime and

serious youth violence.


Professor Harding his study was conducted in 2018-19 through a series of interviews with police, council staff and drug misuse staff as

well as county lines managers, runners, drug users and people being cuckooed. 

The study found that the majority of county lines, but not all, involve Urban Street Gangs (USGs) and that dealers migrate and

commute out of town to new markets.

It also reports that drug markets are altering in the UK and that despite the impact of IT, face-to-face transactions remain favoured for

dealing heroin/crack.

The study confirms that younger people are significantly exploited by USGs and drug dealing crews within county lines and that some young people enjoy their role in CLs and that vulnerability is contested.

It also provides an insight in the fact that some young people prefer independent dealing, user-dealers are increasingly present within County Line and that County Lines impact significantly upon host towns and their local populations.


This study challenges current thinking on drugs and county lines by noting that ‘vulnerability’ of ‘exploited youth’ is situational with greater evidence of agency among users. violence is prolific, endemic, normalised, underreported and used as a control mechanism, that most crack dealers are no longer also crack users   and increased linkages are evident between USGs and organised criminal networks (OCN).

It argues that the current upsurge in UK youth violence arises from convergence of three social domains:  evolution of Urban Street

Gangs (USGs), profound evolutionary changes in drug markets and drug supply networks  and profound alteration of both domains

by IT and social media. 

This study theorises differently about county lines, building upon concepts of street capital and social field in The Street Casino

(Harding, 2014).

Austerity has sharpened deprivation in many communities reducing the opportunities available to young people and widening the

pool of availability of those ready to enter the street gang.


The study found that as more young people join street gangs, levels of competition within/between gangs increases exponentially.

More new players dilute trust and tests loyalties. A more competitive social environment increases turbulence within gangs and

creates a landscape of flux.

It claims that county lines managers are risk averse and seek to distance themselves from possible arrest by exploiting young runners

to distribute drugs. The constant quest for competitive advantage means CL managers are now using locals to deliver drugs which

brings dividends of improved localised knowledge.

They are also often easier to control and exploit. Exploitative business models in county lines models include human trafficking, modern

day slavery, violence, threat, intimidation, mental and physical control, constant surveillance, sexual exploitation, degradation, debt

bondage, coercion into user-dealers. This study offers a detailed typology of cuckooing showing the role of interpersonal relationships

between vulnerable drug users/dealers as being more nuanced than reported.


Looking to the future, the study argues that the future will bring increased County Lines competition and increased violence as managers must cut costs and build a competitive edge. Supply will become increasingly inventive and sophisticated and detection more difficult moving beyond the realm/ability of traditional policing and local communities.


To order a copy of the study click HERE>>

Prof. Simon harding