Gwent: The burglary capital of Britain

In the latest set of crime statistics, only one police force recorded a rise. Mark Hughes reports from the Welsh valleys

In the living room of Margaret Went's end-of-terrace home, the radio blares constantly. It is switched on whenever she is in the house, her only form of entertainment since burglars stole her television. It also plays when she is out because its noise, she hopes, will lead any potential house-breakers to believe someone is at home.

Ms Went's rudimentary security is boosted by some more robust measures. The 67-year-old grandmother's windows are fitted with locks and her patio doors have an alarm. Next, she says, she plans to fit barbed wire and carpet-grippers along the top of the fence in her backyard. She is going to such lengths because this latest burglary is not her first. In 40 years at the same address, she has been robbed four times.

Ms Went lives in Gwent, a rural corner of South Wales which is not normally associated with high levels of crime. But last week the region found itself in possession of two particularly unwanted accolades. Home Office figures showed that, following a 32 per cent increase in burglary in the region, Gwent now has the same burglary rates as London – 13 people in every 1,000 are victims.

While overall crime in 42 police forces is either falling or has seen no change, crime in Gwent has risen by 6 per cent, the only police force in England and Wales to post a rise. So what's going wrong? The latest figures show that in 2009 there were 7,261 burglaries, an increase of 1,761 on the 5,500 reported in 2008. In other words, there were five extra burglaries in the county every day. Newport is Gwent's only city and, as might be expected, much of the crime takes place there. Police say the city has a drug problem – mainly heroin. And where there are drugs, there are also burglaries.

Residents suggest that the shedding of jobs at the Corus steel factory in nearby Llanwern could be a factor. The factory had 10,000 workers in 1980 but today employs just 750 people. The police also cite the recession as a reason for the rise, but hesitate to use it as an excuse since the recession was a national event rather than a Gwent-specific one, during which most other forces still managed to post decreases in acquisitive crime.

Ms Went lives in Corporation Road in Newport. Like most burglary victims, she expresses the sentiment that it is not the value of the goods that were taken – her 32-inch flat screen television – but the fact that the intruders had rifled through every room in her house.

"This is my fourth [burglary] in 40 years which I think is quite a lot. So when I heard that Gwent was as bad as London for burglary, I wasn't really surprised," she said. "It does bother me, though, because you think of London as a dangerous place and perhaps not somewhere safe to live. You expect a little Welsh city like this to be a lot safer, at least that is the perception of most people."

But Newport cannot be entirely blamed for Gwent's ills. South Wales Police, the force next door to Gwent, deals with both of Wales' biggest cities – Swansea and Cardiff – and has still managed to post an 11 per cent drop in burglary and a 12 per cent drop in crime overall.

With just one city in the county, the majority of Gwent is typical Welsh countryside with market towns, hamlets and villages flanked by rolling hills and valleys; the sort of places in which residents would not have thought twice about leaving their doors unlocked, at least until recently. Abergavenny is one such example. A picturesque small town, it has not escaped the crime wave and almost everyone you meet has a story to tell about burglary. Kirsty Griffin, a 27-year-old florist, has been robbed twice in three years. "I've lived in the area my whole life and had never been burgled before. It has really surprised me because you expect it in large cities, but not small communities like this," she said.

Dennis Cooksey, 79, who runs a fruit and veg stall in the town's indoor market, has been burgled three times in the past 20 years. And another man says he has been burgled three times in nine years.

The only person who appears not to have been a victim is Phil James, who runs a carpet stall in the market. "In my village I don't lock my doors or lock my van in the evening. I have lived there for 24 years and have only ever known of one house being broken into," he says. But then the explanation, perhaps: he lives just outside Gwent, in the Dyfed-Powys police region.

Because of the sudden rise in Gwent's burglary rates, Detective Superintendent Rhiannon Kirk was, in February, put in charge of acquisitive crime for the region. She says the force was recently restructured – merging its previous three divisions into one – meaning that officers were not being briefed properly about known burglars in their area. When those burglars were not caught, they were able to continue their crime and so the rates rose.

Det Supt Kirk also points out that the force has now started a burglary-prevention campaign and has operations in place to target known burglary gangs, one of which is known as the Back Door Burglars. "We used to have extremely good burglary detection rates, but we took our eye off the ball because we were concentrating on the restructure. As a result, we neglected burglary but we have addressed that and I am confident it will start coming down," she said.

"No one in Gwent Police is proud of these figures. And with regards to Ms Went putting barbed wire up, no one should have to live like that. But Gwent police is not committing these burglaries. We will catch the people who are doing them, but in the meantime they really need to think about the people's lives they are affecting," she added.

Gwent vs London

Population

Gwent: 550,000 / London: 7,500,000

Average weekly income

Gwent: £394 / London: £627

Average house price

Gwent: £138,585 / London: £370,571

Unemployment levels

Gwent: 9.3% / London: 9.1%

Overall crime rate

Gwent: 91 per 1,000 residents (sixth in the country) / London: 111 per 1,000 residents (highest in country)

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