Heroin and cocaine dealers can't crack 'friendly' Thetford

Nik Chapman and Jake Shannon

Nik Chapman (L), chief executive of the Charles Burrell Centre, and Jake Shannon (R) who runs an upskilling charity based at the centre - Credit: Joel Adams

Despite great progress, a recent investigation by this newspaper has found the problems caused by County Lines and drug dealing still persists in Norwich and parts of Norfolk. But what is the situation in a market town like Thetford? Joel Adams investigates.

Drug dealers peddling crack cocaine and heroin are no longer affecting the quality of life in one of the county’s most deprived towns.

So called “county lines” drug dealers have contributed to Norwich having one of the highest per capita death rates from heroin use in the country, and we have reported how crack addicts smoke their drugs in council tower blocks and heroin needles can be found in the city’s parks.

But in Thetford, which includes some of England’s most deprived postcodes, residents report that the occasional smell of cannabis is the most significant drugs blight the town suffers.

They have told how community spirit and police and council action have helped clean-up a town which in 2019 witnessed a fatal stabbing believed to have been linked to County Lines gangs.

People spoke of a community which pulls together to uphold standards, and good work by Norfolk Police, for keeping the area free of addicts and dangerous paraphernalia like used needles and broken crack pipes.

Nathan Collins, 24, who lives in the town centre, said: “I’ve lived here a couple of years and never seen anything like that.

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“You see a couple of drinkers from time to time but that’s just standard, there’s no hard drugs that I’ve seen around here, no.”

Ashley Jefford, landlord of the Green Dragon pub

Ashley Jefford, landlord of the Green Dragon pub in the town centre, said he sees evidence of cannabis dealing but never heroin or crack - Credit: Joel Adams

And Ashley Jefford, the landlord of the Green Dragon pub on Market Place, said: “The most you’ll see is, you’ll smell weed every now and then, in the garden, and we’ll try to take down who it is and kick them out.

“You see a little bit of white powder in the toilets every now and again. But we don’t see any of the really hard stuff.”

Government analysis of deprivation in England divides the country, at its most detailed level, into 32,844 geographical areas, called Lower Layer Super Output Areas.

The Abbey estate in Thetford ranks 36th-worst for children and young people, and 56th-worst for education skills and training. That puts it in the most deprived 0.1 per cent of the country.

The estate has a troubled reputation, but postman Bobby Hunt, 52, who has been delivering mail in Thetford for 20 years, said: “Abbey is the friendliest estate I do.

“There’s definitely a weed culture around here, but I wouldn’t say crack or heroin.”

Bobby Hunt has been delivering post in Thetford for more than 12 years

Bobby Hunt has been delivering post in Thetford for more than 12 years - Credit: Joel Adams

Estate resident Carol Spinks said: “We’ve been here 32 years, and when I was younger you could set your watch by the dealers round here.

“It’s not as bad now. You do still see the cannabis dealers in the alleyways, they stand out with their bumbags on. But I think the police have caught most of them.”

Guy Smith at the Citizens Advice Bureau on the estate told this paper: “You do get quite a lot of drinking, on the streets in the town, but I’ve never seen anything like that. Never seen any paraphernalia [heroin needles and crack pipes] either.

“You often smell weed - but then again there’s nowhere in England you can’t smell a bit of weed now and again”

His colleague Lyn Keane agreed, adding: “I feel less threatened here than I do in town.”

Other areas in the town are also significant hotspots of deprivation according to the government index.

The Redcastle estate around St John’s Way and St Martin’s Way, near the spot David Lawal was killed in a drugs-related stabbing in October 2019, ranks only marginally higher at 209th-worst, still in the lowest 0.11 per cent.

David Lawal was stabbed to death on Brandon Road in Thetford in October 2019 

David Lawal was stabbed to death on Brandon Road in Thetford in October 2019 - Credit: Archant

In October 2019 David Lawal was stabbed to death on Brandon Road just outside the estate, in what police believe was a drug-related homicide linked to County Lines drug running which originates in London. 

Norfolk Police have cracked down on the practice, using new digital investigation techniques to smash 27 county lines businesses in the last 18 months.

Bethany Hall, 19, lives less than 100 yards from where David Lawal was stabbed to death in October 2019.

She said: “It came as a big surprise, you don’t really see anything like that around here. You smell a bit of weed sometimes in the alley behind us, but that’s all.

“We don’t see crime, we look out over the fields and the river, we see people having a picnic.”

One woman who lives very close to the murder scene, who asked not to be named, said: “You do see the same cars coming up, the same faces waiting around.

Bethany Hall and her little brother Levi live a stone's throw from the spot David Lawal was killed

Bethany Hall and her little brother Levi live a stone's throw from the spot David Lawal was killed - Credit: Joel Adams

“I haven’t seen them recently though, not in the last year, not since that man got killed, that’s all gone."

A neighbour of hers, a 55-year-old retired schoolteacher, said she was aware of teens buying, selling, and smoking cannabis by nearby Blaydon Bridge, but had never seen evidence of crack or heroin use.

Pine Close is often mentioned in the same breath as the Abbey Estate as a problem area in Thetford, but residents report very little in the way of drug dealing or drug use.

Beatrice Lane, 93, and her husband Dennis, 94

Beatrice Lane, 93, and her husband Dennis, 94, have seen evidence of drug dealing in the Pine Close area decline in the last year - Credit: Joel Adams

Nicola Allen, 40, who lives on Fulmerston Road in the Pine Close estate, said: “There isn’t much round here that we’ve come across.

“We’ve lived here 12 years. When we first came up here we had some trouble with one of the neighbours, but now really it’s quite quiet.”

Beatrice Lane, 92, and her husband Dennis, 93, have lived in their house in Pine Close since being moved out of London to Thetford in the early 1960s.

Car Park by Pine Close shops

Suspicious activity regularly took place in and around cars parked behind the run of shops and takeaways in Pine Close, Thetford, but not any more according to residents - Credit: Joel Adams

She said: “The drugs used to be there, you could see, they used to park up in their cars and you’d see people coming to the window and meeting people.

“Youngsters used to get out of the cars, wait for people, and come they’d give each other packets. And if the police came you’d see them tear off in cars, or run off across the common. But we haven’t seen them since last summer.

“They haven’t been over there for a long while. So perhaps they’ve been taken off by the police I don’t know.”

Many in the town are keen to report that Thetford does not deserve its reputation.

Nik Chapman, 62, is the chief executive of the Charles Burrell centre, in the Barnham Cross estate.

Once an abandoned secondary school, The Burrell has been transformed into a thriving business and community centre with more than 50 organisations inside.

Nik Chapman and Jake Shannon

Nik Chapman (L), chief executive of the Charles Burrell Centre, and Jake Shannon (R) who runs an upskilling charity based at the centre - Credit: Joel Adams

He said: “We haven’t seen that kind of thing here really. There’s a lot of things we do have to worry about, but drugs aren’t one of them.

“There’s always going to be someone who’s talked into taking drugs, but do we get crack or heroin dealers? No we don’t."

Police data shows drugs offences make up just six per cent of reported crime in the town. Incident reports increased from single digits in 2019 to 20-something a month during lockdown.

This also reflects a period when Norfolk Police have been conducting a drug crackdown alongside the Metropolitan Police, in Operation Orochi.

Local Inspector for Thetford, Inspector Rob Button, said: “Officers in Thetford are committed to tackling illegal drug activity. We continue to engage with our local communities to identify any concerns they may have and will respond robustly where offences are identified.”

Mac MacDonald, chairman of Safer Thetford Action Group, suggested the area’s geography might be hiding some of the problem.

“Thetford is different, there is so much green space for people to hide away and do things. So for instance drinking in woods is quite common, drug taking in woods is also relatively quite common. 

“We recently cleared the wood near London Road opposite Sainsbury’s, and there were quite a lot of needles there. I’ve previously found needles on and around Spring Walk."

Jenna Adams, 31, pictured with son Kenny

Jenna Adams, 31, pictured with son Kenny, said cannabis is very freely available in the area but evidence of harder drugs much scarcer - Credit: Joel Adams

Cllr Alison Webb, Breckland Council’s executive member for Housing, Health & Communities, said she was pleased that the council's partnership with the police and community groups was making a real difference to communities.

She said “We are clearly on the right track, but we won’t become complacent in ensuring our communities can thrive without having to worry about illegal or unsettling behaviour in their area.”

Mr Chapman spoke for many in the town when he said: “There’s great community spirit here.

"Thetford has a reputation like parts of Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth, but that’s really wrong.

"It’s working hard to change that reputation."

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