Huge scale of drugs gangs blighting town is revealed

AT LEAST 14 criminal gangs are operating in Rotherham, the town’s top police officer revealed during a public meeting on the “blight” of cannabis farms.

District commander Chief Supt Steve Chapman said the public had a key role to play in beating the gangs, most of which he said were involved in illegal drug production.

Mr Chapman added that cannabis farming was part of the larger issue of organised crime. He said: “It isn’t just one organisation, it is groups of people working together to cultivate cannabis and commit other offences more widely.

“We have 14 active mapped groups of organised criminals, some of them are firearms enabled, the majority of them are around drugs supply.

“We rely on the public to come forward, to support our own intelligence picture and to know more about these people and these groups.”

Mr Chapman said police and Rotherham Council had launched a joint operation called Operation Grow to tackle the problem.

Since starting last October, it has seen 50 warrants issued around cannabis cultivation, with 5,000 plants — valued at up to £5 million — seized and 18 people arrested.

Rotherham MP Sarah Champion, who chaired the online meeting, described the gangs behind cannabis farms, which have been linked to dozens of power cuts in Eastwood, Ferham and Kimberworth, as “a blight on our town which must be driven out”.

She added: “In recent years, cannabis farms in Rotherham have gone from an occasional feature of my briefings from the police to an overwhelming theme.”

She said the farms caused “huge problems” to communities, adding: “I am not talking about a couple of plants in a wardrobe.

“These are industrial-scale operations, perpetrated by organised criminal gangs.

“They are linked to modern-slavery, human trafficking, gang violence and other serious criminal activity.

“I share residents’ frustration that not only does this problem persist, it’s spreading.

“Without action against the criminal gangs that set them up, shutting down one farm will simply see it relocated to another area.”

She said after the meeting: “The key thing for me is the importance of residents continuing to share any information they may have with the police, or anonymously with Crimestoppers.

“The more intelligence the authorities have, the quicker they can take action to shut farms down.”

Ms Champion said it was clear “much more needs to be done both locally and nationally”, adding: “There are no simple solutions, and we must ensure that the police have the powers and resources to break up the criminal gangs who prey on our communities.”

Tom Smith, RMBC’s assistant director for community safety and streetscene, said the council’s selective licensing scheme allowed them inspect and enter properties and shut them down, before prohibiting them from being rented out.

Ferham and Eastwood are being targeted under Operation Grow, with plans in place to shift focus to other areas of Rotherham.

Mr Chapman admitted that some premises had been found with cannabis on more than one occasion, and in some cases raided on several occasions, but insisted: “If it’s right for the council to put a banning order on a property, that will be progressed.”

He noted how in some cases this was delayed due to ongoing police investigations.

Mr Chapman highlighted how “vulnerable people” were often left to, or in some cases forced to, look after drug crops.

He insisted the police had the tools they need to combat the issue, adding: “In the five years I’ve been here, we’re the best that we’ve been but there’s always more to do, and we always need the public to help us do it.”

Residents with information on cannabis farms can find details on how to report at www.southyorks.police.uk, while Crimestoppers can be contacted anonymously on 0800 555 111.