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County Lines (Literature Review)

Research 26 March 2021

Executive Summary

This literature review introduces ‘county lines’ and summarises the evidence currently available on the extent of the issue in the United Kingdom. It discusses the typical characteristics of the victims of this relatively new kind of offending, and considers interventions which have been delivered to these victims to help them exit county lines involvement, with a view to providing evidence in support of more of these interventions being made available across the country in a multi-agency strategy.

1.0   Introduction to County Lines

Due to city centres being over saturated with drug dealers, some gangs and organised criminal networks have opted to start moving drugs and selling in other supply areas, smaller towns and often more rural places where there is less competition, perpetrators are less known to local police forces (Spicer, 2019) and there is generally less police presence (Robinson, McLean & Densely, 2019). The UK Government defines county lines as:

“County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.” (Home Office, 2018)

County lines (CL) is the business model of drug dealing which utilises dedicated mobile phone lines (‘deal lines’) to take orders for drugs. These numbers are also used to send mass marketing texts, offering deals and other marketing initiatives. Some individuals involved in county lines offending also use social media, although the extent of the use varies between different lines.  The National Crime Agency (NCA) suggest there are over 2,000 ‘deal lines’ in the UK, linked to around 1,000 county lines. These lines are often branded, and along with customer bases are sometimes sold to other gangs to avoid detection by law enforcement (NCA, 2019). The primary motivation for county lines activity is financial gain (Spicer, 2019). The NCA estimates an individual line profits over £800,000 per year, with single, daily trips generating up to several thousand pounds. Ministry of Justice (MoJ) Practice Guidance suggests an annual turnover of £0.5bn in UK CL activity (Ministry of Justice, 2019).

Perpetrators often recruit, exploit and traffic children, young people and vulnerable adults to deliver drugs to these out of town areas, to minimise the risks they face. This exploitation is critical to the county lines business model. The typical structure of a county lines model usually consists of established ‘elders’ or ‘top boys’, who remain in the urban base and manage the deal line. There are then ‘sitters’, generally younger individuals from the host town, who are more involved with moving drugs and their distribution in the ‘colonised’ area. At the bottom of the chain are the ‘runners’, usually very young, recruited from the native city and involved in the street level dealing to the end user. Runners are also recruited from the drug user population from the colonised town. This structure takes advantage of vulnerable and young populations and puts distance between the end user deals and the higher ranking individuals so they are less at risk of being linked by law enforcement, but continue to gain financially from the operation.

County lines dealing is usually associated with heroin and crack cocaine dealing. Spicer (2019) suggests that this is because of its physical form (powder or rock is easier to transport in large quantities, compared to substances such as cannabis) and the perceived vulnerability of people who use these substances (socially excluded, low on social capital, less likely to report victimisation). These factors contribute to an efficient business model.

County lines offending appears to be increasing nationwide, resulting in increased levels of violence, exploitation of children and vulnerable adults, class A drug use, and potentially increased acquisitive crime (Ford, 2018) However, due to the relative infancy of the county lines model there isn’t much research on the area. Most information gathered and published has been from the NCA. It is hard to obtain an accurate figure for the extent and reach of CL offending. This is because recording of county lines involvement is inconsistent and there are no robust recording methods to capture the extent of knowledge held by various staff and organisations. There is not enough awareness of what constitutes county lines, meaning it is not being recorded as such, if at all.

There has been an increase in recorded serious violence since 2014, and although the data available from current reporting does not allow for a full assessment of the link between this rise and county lines activity (NCA, 2019), several police forces reported that a primary concern with the rise of county lines has been the increase in serious violence, frequently involving firearms, knives and weapons, in the areas CL dealers are moving to (Spicer, 2019). However there is evidence of county lines offending presenting a continued threat of violence, serious injury and loss of life, particularly for runners and drug users, and between gangs/competing groups. The use of weapons is reported in relation to county lines activity.

2.0   Victims

In short, county lines can affect anyone. There is a broad range of people being targeted, but recruitment is typified by some form of power imbalance. Age is the most obvious and most common, however a range of other factors such as gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources are used by those perpetrating the exploitation (Home Office, 2018).

Victims are recruited from both originating (urban) and export (rural) areas. Perpetrators are increasingly recruiting victims who match the ethnicity of the target export area, so they aren’t noticed as much.

2.1    Children and young people

The most common group targeted are males aged 15-17, however children are being recruited and exploited from a young age, as young as 11. Although the NCA reported 91% of individuals recorded being associated with county lines offending were male, females may be underrepresented in these figures, as they are less likely to arouse suspicion from law enforcement, therefore not identified as being involved in this offending statistic (NCA, 2019). Boys and young men are more likely to be groomed to sell drugs, whereas girls and young women involved in gang are more likely to be groomed for sexual exploitation.

County lines gangs tend to target children and young people with vulnerabilities such as:

  • Being in poverty
  • Unstable family life
  • Frequent missing episodes
  • Exclusion from mainstream schooling
  • Previous involvement with criminality
  • Parents who are involved with drugs
  • Social services intervention or having looked after status
  • Behavioural or developmental disorders
  • Not in education, employment or training (NEET)

They also target children from stable backgrounds; these victims might have difficult relationships with family or friends. Children and young people with no criminal record are also targeted as they receive less attention from law enforcement.

Recruitment can take place in schools/educational institutions/Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), foster/care homes or homeless shelters; particularly those with ties to the recruiting offender (NCA, 2019). Gangs target children who are likely to be less closely monitored (children’s homes, PRUs) but are increasingly targeting children with no links to services, with middle class children being targeted alongside more vulnerable ones (Ford, 2018).

2.2    Vulnerable adults

Targeted vulnerable adults are usually those with addiction problems and have criminal histories for low level offending such as shoplifting, associated with drug problems. county lines offenders are taking over, or ‘cuckooing’ properties belonging to vulnerable adults for the purposes of both storing and dealing drugs. Dealers gain access to these properties either by befriending the victims before taking over their homes, by offering ‘free’ drugs in return for use of the property, by threats of or actual violence, or by inducing drug debts which must be ‘repaid’ (Spicer, 2019). Creating drug debts is also a method utilised for forcing ‘runners’ to engage in street level dealing, in order to ‘pay off’ their debts. Other vulnerable adults targeted may have mental health problems (e.g. depression, anxiety, psychosis) or learning or developmental disorders.

There is a problem with vulnerable adults not meeting thresholds for interventions from services until it is ‘too late’. Professionals suggest that the issue of capacity should be re-examined in cases of cuckooing, as the exploitation involved is similar to domestic abuse and could come under coercive control legislation (Ford, 2018)

Some victims are coerced in to county lines activity, some are lured or attracted to it as they see it as glamorous or as something that will give them higher status. Some victims may be groomed under the pretence of a friendship or relationship and given gifts, alcohol, drugs and/or cigarettes. They may also be sexually exploited, particularly female victims, who might not be able to see/accept that they are being exploited as they believe the nature of their relationship is not one of exploitation.

2.3    Victim Involvement

Minors are usually used as runners to carry drugs, money and weapons. Victims might also be involved in cutting and bagging drugs, collecting debts, ‘cuckooing’, other low level criminal activities and sexual exploitation. It has been reported that victims’ bank accounts are being used for money laundering purposes (Ford, 2018).

Debt bondage is the main strategy for control once victims are recruited. Victims may also be subject to threats of or actual violence, kidnap, staged robberies, threats to their family, sexual abuse.

Violence is being used increasingly in attempts to pay off debts (e.g. committing robberies), to send messages to rival gangs, to earn status within the gang and to deter young people from disclosing their gang status to Youth Offending Teams (Ford, 2018).

Signs of children and young people being involved in county lines include:

  • being caught with large amounts of drugs and/or cash,
  • being away from home for extended amounts of time, and on several occasions
  • having unexplained items such as additional phones, expensive items/clothing
  • getting in trouble at school/truanting

3. Where it occurs

The Metropolitan police report the highest number of county lines originating in their area, with the West Midlands and Merseyside forces having the next biggest numbers. The MoJ (2019) cite increasing numbers of police forces reporting Class A drug exporting in their areas; 26 forces in 2018, compared to 13 forces in 2017.

Robinson, McLean & Densely (2019) report that towns are scoped out by gang members, then if they’re deemed suitable, they will start dealing in town centres, expanding their customer base by using local users as dealers. Properties to store and deal drugs from are either cuckooed, or victim details are used to book short term lets (e.g. Air BnBs) and guest houses.

The main mode of transport used by children and young people in CL activity is rail travel; presumably due to minors not legally being able to drive. Private and rented cars are also regularly used to transport offenders, victims, drugs, cash and weapons, with an emerging trend for the use of cloned number plates. Buses such as National Express services are used as they are cheaper than rail travel, especially for children. There are known intelligence gaps around the extent of the use of other modes of transport.

4. Consequences for Victims

The National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC) identified the main areas of harm from county lines being:

  1. Links to child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE)
  2. Access to firearms
  3. Trafficking
    Local and out of force juveniles, or vulnerable adults being trafficked or criminally exploited
  4. Cuckooed addresses
  5. Serious physical violence (NCA, 2019)

Victims are sometimes forced to move in to cuckooed properties or trap houses in the supply areas, experiencing lack of food, hygiene and payment/money. Victims are experiencing trauma, witnessing or being involved in extreme violence. Young victims can drop out of school or education, be sent to prison, and become stuck in the ‘revolving door’ of criminal justice.

Children and young people arrested on suspicion of possession or possession with intent to supply (PWITS) are often arrested outside of their area and released pending investigation, but not returned to their home area. They will have a drug debt for the drugs that were seized and they are unlikely to have engaged with services to help them move away from county lines involvement.

Gang affiliated young people are at increased risk of mental health conditions such as conduct disorders, antisocial personality disorder, anxiety, psychosis and substance dependence. Exposure to violence in gangs can lead to depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Hughes, Hardcastle & Perkins, 2015).

5.0 Working together

Many separate social issues are being exploited by gangs and Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) to recruit vulnerable young people to county lines activities, from reduced funding to welfare services (housing, education, youth services, healthcare and criminal justice) to increased social media usage by young people. Agencies need to work together to build intelligence and work to reduce opportunities for gangs to recruit vulnerable people. Many organisations working with children and young people (such as schools, social care, police) miss the signs of county lines involvement and exploitation. This is largely down to them not being aware.

The National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC) was launched in 2018 and is jointly run by the NCA and National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) and works with other organisations to map national county lines threats and prioritise action against the most significant perpetrators. There are still several known intelligence gaps regarding different areas of county lines information, however these gaps are being filled due to ongoing work and cooperation between agencies.

Ministry of Justice Practice Guidance (2019) suggests inter-borough strategy meetings between local authorities, police forces and key practitioners (children’s services, Youth Offending Teams (YOTs), healthcare and early intervention hubs) as county lines involves travel across boroughs. These would also be an opportunity to share best practice more widely, as well as build links to enable better information sharing in order to protect potential victims. This would also help areas who previously haven’t had need to address large scale drug operations or gangs, who now find themselves in a position where they are not as well equipped to deal with issues arising in their area as they need to be. Additionally, the perpetrators and victims may be from different areas, meaning organisations need to liaise with counterpart services in other areas.

5.1    Modern Slavery

There is a lot of overlap between county lines dealing, modern slavery and human trafficking. Modern slavery and child trafficking laws are increasingly being used to protect children from being exploited by county lines activity (NPCC, 2019). It has been suggested that convicting county lines offenders under Modern Slavery attaches a stigma to county lines offending, rather than a ‘badge of honour’ associated with drug dealing (Spicer, 2019).

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) identifies and supports victims of human trafficking and collects data about victims for the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU). The NCA report (2019) says that the NRM is showing more cases of exploitation within the county lines model being reported. This is likely due to combined effort of law enforcement, government, local authorities and charities. There is also more exploitation being reported for Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE). The NCA report says these numbers are still likely underestimating the size of the problem as data is presented by primary exploitation type, so the full extent of exploitation is not clear (NCA, 2019).

6.0 Interventions for Victims

Pitts (2019) concludes that the most effective interventions are those which are based and embedded in the community, rather than services that victims are ‘taken to’. Workers based in the same communities as the people who are at risk are better placed to assess the problems facing them and so are better equipped to deal with them. Hudek (2018) reports that caseworkers with lived experience and cultural competence have more credibility and are able to develop trusted relationships with children and young people involved in county lines activities.

6.1    Multiagency approach

It is repeatedly cited that thresholds for service interventions are too high, with young people only receiving help when they are at crisis point (Ford 2018), usually when their behaviour is more entrenched. Early interventions such as youth services and outreach work are being removed, despite young people standing a better chance of moving away from county lines involvement if reached sooner. Partnership between all appropriate agencies is key, as individuals may not meet thresholds for single agencies. Several needs are seen separately and not recognised as combining to complex needs, resulting in vulnerability to gang involvement. Moyle (2019) argues that multiagency support is necessary to allow “structurally vulnerable” populations to remove themselves from exploitative relationships, as some victims see CL activity as preferable to other kinds of income generation. Victims may not wish to engage with services as they either enjoy the lifestyle it brings, need the money, fear reprisals if they try to move away from CL activities, or they may not see themselves as a victim.

6.2    ‘Reachable Moments’

Interventions should be made available at as many points as possible where potential victims could come in to contact with any services, and support them in getting the help they need to exit CL activities. This includes hospitals/Major Trauma Centres, PRUs, custody suites, pharmacies/prescribing services. For example, Moyle (2019) suggests that vulnerable adults who become involved with county lines offending due to drug addiction were more able to exit exploitation once they had addressed their addiction issues, either by gaining access to methadone or otherwise controlling their addictions.

St Giles Trust ran a project with West Midlands police which placed youth workers at hospitals to help and support young people who were there due to violence being inflicted on them. They assisted them to get away from violence, helped with housing, Education, Training and Employment (ETE) and any other needs identified. St Giles Trust have also been running a similar scheme in a London hospital in the Major Trauma Centre, and evaluations show a significant decrease in re-admissions due to the intervention (St Giles Trust, 2019). There is a case for this type of intervention being made available at more places so that more victims can be reached.

6.3    Families

Families are important in supporting young people to move away from county lines involvement. They need to be supported to understand what is happening, signs to look for, practical advice on how to help, and receive comprehensive early intervention. In some cases the money coming from CL involvement may be used for household bills, or families may have problems maintaining boundaries in the home, or may themselves be involved, drug users, involved in or otherwise normalise criminality.

An evaluation by Hudek (2018) also described benefits of a national telephone support service for parents. The SafeCall service provided support to parents of children returning home after missing periods, and Hudek (2018) reports that this important where there is no ‘on the ground’ specialist support in their area (which is common outside of London) and that providing support for families is a key element of providing the right conditions for children to exit county lines involvement.

6.4    Examples of Effective Interventions

An evaluation of an intervention delivered by St Giles Trust showed that specialist casework delivered to children involved in county lines and their families had the greatest impact in helping them move away from involvement with county lines. This finding was confirmed by police, YOTs and social services, as well as by the children and families themselves. The results involved reductions in or cessation of missing episodes, not coming to the attention of the police, returning to education, taking up positive social activities and improved relationships with family. These outcomes were praised as particularly impressive due to the relatively short length of the intervention. This project evaluation also demonstrated the benefits of agencies working in partnership and also showed a significant cost benefit for the public sector (Hudek, 2018).

For more examples of interventions still in early development stages (not yet evaluated, but showing promise), see Ford (2018).

KSS CRC Research and Policy Unit

December 2019


Ford, S. (2018). County lines – a national summary & emerging best practice

Home Office (2018). Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines.

Hudek, J. (2018). Evaluation of County Lines Pilot Project

Hughes, K., Hardcastle, K., & Perkins, C. (2015). The mental health needs of gang-affiliated young people: A briefing produced as part of the Ending Gang and Youth Violence programme

Ministry of Justice (2019). County Lines Exploitation. Practice guidance for YOTs and frontline practitioners

Moyle, L. (2019). Situating Vulnerability and Exploitation in Street-Level Drug Markets: Cuckooing, Commuting, and the “County Lines” Drug Supply Model. Journal of Drug Issues, 49(4), 739-755.

NCA (2019). County Lines Drug Supply, Vulnerability and Harm 2018 (NAC(19)095).

NPCC (2019, October 18). Record numbers arrested and hundreds of children protected as County Lines drug networks targeted

Pitts, J. (2019). Responding to youth gangs in England: a public health model?. Journal of Children’s Services.

Robinson, G., McLean, R., & Densley, J. (2019). Working county lines: child criminal exploitation and illicit drug dealing in Glasgow and Merseyside. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 63(5), 694-711.

Spicer, J. (2019). ‘That’s their brand, their business’: how police officers are interpreting County Lines. Policing and Society, 29(8), 873-886.

St Giles Trust (2019, August 7). New Hospital Work Tackles Violent Crime in the Midlands