Out-of-town drug gangs are setting deadly 'booby traps' to target Blackpool's police, fire and council teams
Blackpool is fighting back against criminal gangs from across the UK who are using the resort’s cheap housing to create cannabis farms.
Blackpool Police, Blackpool Council and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service are working together to fight the serious drug problems blighting the resort.
But it’s far from an easy operation with gangs even setting booby traps in the properties to try electrocute firefighters and police officers. Sharps and knives are also deliberately placed on bannisters.
Det Sgt Steve Montgomery, from the Blackpool Criminal Exploitation Team, told the Gazette cannabis production in Blackpool has increased in the last few years and at times it has been difficult to police.
He said: “I think it’s an area of business that organised crime groups have really taken ownership of really in the last three years and they’ve become a lot more sophisticated and adept at targeting ways to be sort of creative around it.
“So we’ve seen a number of large sort of commercial units being rented and taken over at high value where obviously the product that they can produce from that is quite significant.
Det Sgt Montgomery said a lot of the gangs are coming from outside the resort.
He said: “I think, more from my point of view, looking at it from a modern slavery human trafficking side of things, through our investigations we have seen a increase in Vietnamese and Albanian organised criminals utilising Blackpool mainly for the cheap social housing that’s offered.
“There are a number of investigations that are still ongoing, so I don’t want to give too much away. We’ve looked at a very small, three or four square mile radius around the town centre, and there’s been a disproportionate amount of cannabis farms in those areas due to the cheap housing.
“I know one of the suspects we’re investigating has spent just under half a million pounds and has nine different properties in Blackpool, of which eight of them have had a cannabis farm in them.
“So, from a policing point of view that’s hard, obviously to police on your own and knowing where to target because a lot of the criminality is out of area coming into Blackpool. Sometimes we’re a little late to the party if you like, some of it because of the lack of information that is coming in and once the farms are already set up so it’s hard to get ahead.
“However we have learned, and we’ve adapted over the last few years and we’ve started a very good multi-working partnership to try and identify some of these problems early and we’ll do some work with the council to try and work out what we can do around landlords, what checks we can do in addresses that type thing and try and pick up on any rogue landlords and any suspicious activity.”
There has been success already in tackling these gangs and disrupting the supply of drugs into the resort.
Det Sgt Montgomery said: “Part of a recent operation we identified a potential rogue landlord and we were able to identify him as he bought another set of houses in the area and we were able to strike on them very early doors as they were set up as cannabis farms before the criminality sort of took over.
“From there we’ve so far convicted three members of that OCG (organised crime group) and two further more senior members who are awaiting trial later this year.
“They were based in Gloucestershire and they had come up to Blackpool to target the housing areas so I think that’s the problem we have.
“That’s not to say it there isn’t cannabis production from our own community, but on the high end, high level what we’re seeing is a significant amount of it is coming from organised crime groups out of the area.”
Det Sgt Montgomery said another concern is that around ‘90 to 100 per cent’ of the cannabis farms have electricity abstractions in them where gangs are bypassing the electricity supply to not pay for the cost of the production.
He added: “I think on the two or three out of the last the last four we’ve gone to the way that the electricity has been bypassed has been straight into the mains, which has led to us having to dig up the streets outside the addresses, due to the dangerous situation being left in the house. Obviously that’s danger for services attendant, danger for neighbourhoods and danger for the victims of modern slavery that are left behind inside these addresses.”
Neil Mitchell, incident intelligence officer for Lancashire Fire and Rescue based in Blackpool, said these criminal tactics can cause firefighters serious injury.
Last year there was three cannabis related fires in Blackpool, in contrast to just a single incident in each of the two previous years.
He said: “When we go in and isolate it, because it’s being bypassed, you cannot be sure that anything is actually bypassed so it can be still working with live electrics with a potential electric shock risk.
“Basically when it has been done illegally, you’ve got to assume that nothing has been done to standard and all probably been done quite amateurish, you just don’t know what you’re touching.
“Steve mentioned digging the streets and sadly that is something that we have to do but if there is a fire you still have to go into the premises and take that risk and although you’ve isolated it, that might not be the case.”
Neil also mentioned that the structural integrity of the properties are brought into question when criminals have took hold of them.
He said: “Because these gangs are using ventilation and lighting, quite often you find large holes in floors and ceilings and that gives us two problems, one is falling through it because generally the lights have gone out so firefighters are working in the dark, so the holes in floors sometimes can go into cellars, however more importantly often you’ve got the fire compartmentation breached.
“For example you may have terraced houses, commercial units or houses of multiple occupancy and for the regulatory form order they have to have certain fire compartmentation.
“As soon as you start cutting holes in ceilings and walls, that goes, so you can have rapid fire spread from one compartment to another and that might not well be seen if it’s behind the false wall or false ceiling and that’s a danger for us.”
Neil also mentioned how criminals now stuff the attics of these properties full of insulation so the farms cannot be seen by the police’s heat cameras, which in the past could find cannabis growths.
He said how the insulation creates yet another problem for firefighters.
He said: “There’s massive amounts of thermal insulation in the property, on all the walls and they cover all the windows, ceilings and roof and the problem for us is that we go into a fire and that heat has to go somewhere but it can’t go because it’s insulated.
“So the fire crew walk into an intensely hot building and generally in a fire we would ventilate it by breaking a window and put a fan in which clears all that hot gases and smoke out the property but that is not possible after the windows are boarded up with insulation.”
And if all that wasn’t bad enough for fire crews, Neil explained how the gangs set booby traps in the properties.
He said: ““We can see quite a lot of booby traps in these types of properties, so this can be handles or pieces of metal that have been hooked up to the mains to cause electrocution.
“I have also seen sharps such as needles and knives put onto bannisters. Whether it’s designed to stop the fire service or other criminals, I don’t know but that’s a problem for us.
“Another thing these gangs don’t care about is something that is key with Blackpool is the terraced properties which fire has a high risk of spreading
“So if you’ve got neighbours who are innocently living their lives in a terraced property and in between them the potential cannabis farm, the risk of that fire spreading from that property is great.”
A spokesperson for Blackpool Council said it tackling the cannabis problems were just as important for the council as it was for the emergency services.
They said: “If these gangs are involved in one form of criminality, they’re going to be involved in other forms of criminality as well so the most important issue is obviously intel sharing right from the outset and therefore a joint targeting of operations.
On top of that, we can utilise each other’s tools and powers to actually get into the relevant premises.
“It’s also really important that members of the public do report incidents, not just with regards to cannabis farms, but for all forms of alleged criminality. A lot of these individuals and groups are interlinked, and if they’re involved in one type of crime, they’ll be involved in all the types of crimes as well.
“So you can never have too much intel to keep your knowledge of things and working with police colleagues when you have high levels of anti-social behaviour and drug dealing from certain premises that can be a major blight on the neighbourhood.
“As a partnership we have actually been able to get a number of anti-social behaviour closure orders on these problematic premises and therefore moved the problems from neighbourhood areas and quite often it’s groups of people moving into Blackpool.
“As Steve alluded to earlier, due to the extremely low property prices they’ve got no local connection whatsoever, they just come here and start becoming a blight within neighbourhoods and communities, so the way that we go about closing these premises is joining up with other agencies and analyse the complaints and police logs that have been received so the public basically act as eyes and ears on behalf of the partnership.”