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Biting into County Lines - Is Project ADDER the answer?

Insights Perspective


Jess Hull, Policy and Communications Analyst | Jessica Lumley, Senior Analyst

Thursday 19 August 2021

A key plank of Boris Johnson’s ‘Beating Crime’ plan is Project ADDER - a multi-million pound Home Office anti-drugs initiative combining “targeted and tougher” policing with “enhanced” treatment and recovery services. The aim of ADDER, which stands for ‘Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recover’, is to clamp down on local gang leaders driving the drugs trade while helping people recover from addictions. It was launched in England and Wales in January 2021 in five towns and cities with some of the highest rates of drug misuse; in July, the Prime Minister said it would be extended to eight other areas - at a total cost by 2023 of £59 million. As part of Crest Advisory’s latest project on ‘county lines’ drug gangs, analysts Jessica Lumley and Jess Hull have been exploring ADDER’s chances of success:

To understand ADDER you have to understand county lines.

County lines emerged as drug-dealing gangs in urban areas expanded their businesses to capture demand in suburban and rural parts of the country. The gangs brought more frequent and brutal violence with them and relied on the coerced labour of children and vulnerable people to facilitate their market takeover.

As county lines grew, so did the availability of the drugs they supplied - mainly crack cocaine and heroin; that fuelled demand, which made the lines more profitable. Organised gangs used a cheap and pliable workforce along with aggressive marketing tactics - special deals, door-to-door delivery, 24 hour service - to supply customers and gain a competitive edge over rivals; that in turn caused more violence and exploitation.

At the same time, the resources available to reduce demand for illegal drugs have become increasingly stretched. Since 2013-14, when local authorities in England became responsible for drug treatment and prevention services, their budgets have dropped by 20%. Some treatment services were terminated and others were cut back to a point where they lacked the specialist skills and expertise to make a real difference.

Project ADDER is in part an attempt to fill some of the gaps and deal with the problems arising from county lines gangs. It's also aiming to address other aspects of drug use and addiction. The Home Office hopes ADDER will bring key agencies together to disrupt the criminal networks supplying heroin, cocaine and crack and ensure treatment is available where needed.

Among the first five areas to receive ADDER funding were Blackpool and Middlesbrough, which have the two highest rates of drug poisoning deaths of any English local authority. Crest Advisory spoke to representatives from the police, council and health services in each town to find out more about how the project works.

Middlesbrough: new priorities

Crest was told that because of budget cuts Cleveland Police, which is responsible for policing Middlesbrough, had dramatically shifted its approach to drug enforcement. Previously, police used three different teams with specialist skills to combat street dealing, local supply and organised crime. But as resources dwindled, the force cut out the middle tier, placing responsibility for tackling local dealing networks on neighbourhood policing teams.

Drug enforcement took a back-seat - and gangs became more brazen; dealing increased and demand soared with a parallel rise in violence and drug-related crime. The population of addicts swelled; treatment options were hampered by siloed working and cuts to services. The result was that county lines exploitation flourished in Middlesbrough, with police intelligence failing to pick up new models of local drug dealing.

“There's an undeniable correlation between those budgetary cuts and the loss of the specialism and the capacity, and the sort of worst outcomes that we'd all desperately try and avoid”

- Project ADDER health official, Middlesbrough

Project ADDER is an attempt to reverse that: the funding has been viewed locally as a clear directive from the Government that drug enforcement is once again a high priority. Despite early sluggishness as police teams shifted gear, there’s been some ground-breaking investigative work to uncover county lines operating models and identify novel tactics and patterns of exploitation. Officers at Cleveland Police believe they’re now in a better position to tackle the problem:

“Because it’s national, and driven from the top, it’s definitely made senior managers sit up and think differently about our drug enforcement approach”
“County lines has been a bit of a hidden issue for us within Cleveland, and I think the true picture is only just emerging because of a brilliant covert operation Project ADDER is funding”
“We have not really been aware of the true county lines picture within Cleveland”

Project ADDER has also helped restore partnership working between agencies in Middlesbrough so that after police take enforcement action against individuals there’s a clear pathway towards treatment for those who need it.

“The idea is that all of the enforcement activity and the county lines disruption should be done in line with the treatment services [...] So we do see it really as a whole system, and know that we can't have any sort of meaningful effectiveness, or long term positive change, without them working in tandem”

- Project ADDER health official, Middlesbrough

It also seems that Project ADDER has led to a broader culture shift, with new police operations targeting county lines working with social care and child protection services to spot signs of exploitation and vulnerability. There is now a consensus that siloed working cannot break the cycle of drug demand and supply, as well as relief that at last there is funding to repair and rebuild services, supported by a clear strategy and framework.

“We haven't had the resources in the past to necessarily do some of that early intervention work so it got to that point in time now, where we can't just do the prevention work, because we've got so much going on in terms of that actual criminal activity taking place. So we need to be doing that two-pronged approach”

- Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner, Cleveland

“ADDER has been absolutely a godsend, really, not just in terms of finally having a bit of funding to address all these gaps that have appeared, but also being a catalyst to reignite the relationships between police and criminal justice in the enforcement side with health and the treatment and recovery as well”

- Project ADDER health official, Middlesbrough


Heroin Assisted Treatment

Funding from Project ADDER has helped secure the continuation until March 2022 of the Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) programme. Set up in 2019 by Cleveland’s Police and Crime Commissioner with local agency support, the scheme aims to help heroin users with long-term dependency who’ve failed to benefit from other drug treatment and who commit crimes to support their habit.

Those on the HAT programme attend a clinic to inject diamorphine (medical heroin) under supervision to ensure there is no adverse reaction. When their drug use is under control they’re given specialist help to rebuild their lives.

Although HAT scheme participants have different vulnerabilities and needs from the young people involved in county lines drug dealing, the demand generated by long-term heroin users is linked to the drugs supplied by county lines gangs.

“Unlike most pilots, it's been the absolute opposite of targeting the low-hanging fruit; it has been about targeting those who have not benefited from the treatment offer for decades and are the most hard to engage…If you break the cycle of substance use in more and more people, then there is less and less demand for that substance”

- Cleveland HAT health official


Blackpool: supporting young people

For a number of years, Blackpool has reported exceptionally high levels of drug-related deaths. The seaside town has become increasingly disadvantaged, with cheap-to-rent houses of multiple occupation attracting people from outside the area, including former prisoners and people with a history of offending. There is a consensus that to fix Blackpool’s drug problem, you must first address the housing issue.

After receiving ADDER funding, Blackpool established two support teams: the first to focus on adult drug users - and the second on young people involved in drugs or at risk of exploitation. ‘Young ADDER’, as it is known, provides dedicated services for under-25s with complex needs. The team is made up of local authority drug specialists, staff from the young people’s sexual health service and volunteers, among them coaches from the local football club. The wrap-around support provided by Young ADDER follows the ‘AMBIT’ model, an approach first adopted for adolescents with complex problems, where each young person is assigned a key worker from the team with whom they have a strong relationship.

“[The service] existed beforehand, but ADDER has given them extra resource, including resource for the weekend, which was their gap”

- public health official, Blackpool council

“[Young ADDER] can provide a level of intervention and support and engagement that we don't have capacity to do”

- social worker, Blackpool

The advantage of Young ADDER is that it helps young people after they leave the child protection system and enter adulthood, a period of heightened risk of both addiction and exploitation. It also offers targeted support for those whose drug use is low-level or recreational, as acting early can reduce future demand on health services and the criminal justice system.

A good start - but an uncertain future

In Blackpool and Middlesbrough, Project ADDER appears to be having a positive impact. It is still early days, of course, but the programme has already led to a resurgence in partnership working - between the enforcement side and clinical providers - and a deeper recognition of the benefits of agencies tackling complex problems together, rather than by themselves. There have been many lost years, however, and there’s no certainty that the funding will be maintained, raising concerns about whether the structures of joint working that have been put in place will hold firm.


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