Children as young as seven and eight are being recruited into criminal gangs in Northamptonshire.
The county’s youth offending service has said the ‘change in the social landscape is shocking’ and is looking at interventions to tackle the ‘growing phenomenon’.
The young gang members are known as ‘tinies’ and can be lured in by being offered luxuries and then kept in the gang’s clutches through threats of violence.
Gang-related crime is now a disturbing problem across the county as organised criminal enterprises from big cities such as Manchester and London are expanding their empires into other parts of the country.
Danielle Stone, Labour councillor for the Castle Ward in Northampton, said she was aware that this had been happening in her town.
She said: “I’m heartbroken by this. Lots of families have become more and more vulnerable and we have seen a huge increase in poverty.
“47,000 children in the county are living in poverty.
“We have a large number of children living in overcrowded conditions.
“I am aware of it. The Castle ward that I represent is one of the most deprived in the county and has a transient population.
“It then becomes difficult and the community is not as resilient as there is a churn of people.
“Sometimes you can see incidents on the streets, it is becoming more and more visible.”
Cllr Stone says that the situation has been caused by the Government’s austerity agenda which has seen huge cuts to services to families that need them the most.
The Youth Offending Service’s youth justice plan for 2018/19 which will be discussed at the Northamptonshire county council’s cabinet meeting next Tuesday (November 13) says that a growing proportion of children referred to the YOS have links to gang activity.
Northants Police has been running Operation Viper since the summer in an attempt to crack down on the gangs, who are often taking over the homes of vulnerable people and using it as a base to deal drugs from.
Inspector Julie Mead said the county’s police force has had to educate itself on the county lines issue but is now ‘getting on the front foot with it’.
She said: “This is something that has been around in the big cities for a long time. These are very sophisticated businesses.
“In Northamptonshire, we have not been used to dealing with this sort of crime. We are not the Met police.
“Young people from Northamptonshire are being enticed into the glamorous lifestyle and think it is easy money.
“Stop and search is very controversial and we have to be 100 per cent confident before we do it.
“Who are we more likely to stop, someone in their 20s or a very young child? Where is the gang more likely to lose their product or lose their money?”
The senior officer said she had not personally come across a child as young as eight involved in gang activity but knew that secondary pupils in Year 7 were being groomed into gangs.
The police force is sending officers into schools to educate staff and pupils and is working with other partners agencies such as social services to share intelligence.
She said: “It is happening a lot more than it used to, it is everywhere, the leafy villages of Northamptonshire as well as the towns.
“It is a really wicked problem but we are getting on the right side of it now.”
Insp Mead said anyone who has concerns about a young person who may be involved in gang activity can call police on 101 or report it through Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.