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SHOCKING: Arson figures revealed in Durham and Darlington

SHOCKING: Arson figures revealed in Durham and Darlington

The aftermath of an arson attack on a car in Bowburn earlier this year

Leaders are facing calls for more action as shocking figures reveal the Durham and Darlington area as the arson capital of the country.

The area has topped tables for deliberate fire-setting for two years running, and now tops the list for vehicle fires.

Blazes have been linked to crime gangs, flytipping and even family feuds.

Keith Wanley, area manager for the County Durham and Darlington Fire Service, told councillors yesterday: “We need to do more.

“This has got to become a priority because we are at completely the wrong end of the scale when we compare ourselves, even within the region.

“There is a cultural acceptance of fire that needs to be addressed.”

Mr Wanley pleaded for councillors to use their influence, saying: “We just need to work together to stop this and address this.

“We need everybody to take a part in this, because when it comes to arson, are we addressing the problem or the symptom?

“It’s fine if we’re just constantly chasing where the fires are, but we need to get to that underlying cause of why people think it’s acceptable.”

He presented figures on deliberate primary fires – involving property of value – showing Durham with 79 fires per 100,000 population in 2019-20, and 64 in 2020-1, top of the table above Cleveland, South Yorkshire and Tyne & Wear, and well over the national average.

Mr Wanley said: “We have the highest rate of deliberate primary fires than any other service area in the country.

“Across the North-east of England we have a much greater problem with deliberate fires than any other area of the country.”

Durham’s figures for vehicle fires are also now the highest in the country at almost 41 per 100,000 population in 2020-1, overtaking Tyne & Wear and South Yorkshire from third place in the previous year.

“We’ve moved up into the top spot, which is absolutely where we don’t want to be,” Mr Wanley told a Durham County Council meeting.

And the area has moved from third to second highest for secondary fires, which involve rubbish, waste, grass or scrubland, with 264 such fires per 100,000 population in 2020-1, more than three times the national average.

The figures were presented in a report on arson to a Safer And Stronger Communities scrutiny committee.

Mr Wanley said there had been some progress and reductions but “other areas have made better progress”.

Some fires were linked to school leaving times: “We need to educate young people on the dangers of fire-setting and arson.

“We’re doing an awful lot of work with school children. We understand that is a priority so that they don’t grow up thinking it’s normal and acceptable to use fire, either to dispose of waste and rubbish or as a weapon to attack or intimidate people.”

To tackle the issue, an Arson Suppression Group has just been formed, chaired by assistant chief constable John Ward. A multi-agency task force is dealing with fly-tipping to rapidly remove potential fuel sources, and a free Firestoppers line – 0800 1695558 or firestoppersreport.co.uk – set up to report arson anonymously.

Mr Wanley said they needed to understand arsonists’ motivations and reasons, from fascination with fire to complex social, cultural, health and educational issues and inequalities.

Better management was also needed to prevent fires in common localities, lay-bys, back lanes and empty back yards where items are dumped.

Some vehicle fires were linked to “family feuds”, some used to torch property. Fires were attributed to organised crime groups on the east coast but this accounted for less than 20%.

“We can’t just blame organised crime,” added Mr Wanley.

“We do know that some of it is linked to copycat behaviour where people see it and they think, ‘that’s the done thing, we’ll also use fire as a weapon’.

“I remember a couple of years ago we had three car fires all within an hour of each other in completely separate areas but all the cars happened to belong to the same family. That was a deliberate attack against a family, setting cars on fire in the middle of the night.”

He added numbers of primary fires were 200% higher and secondary fires 90% higher in the north of the county than the south.

“That is a cultural issue. It seems that it’s more acceptable in the north of the county for people to flytip, to set fires and also to set fires to property and buildings.”

A forensic psychologist is also looking into the root causes in a Newcastle University study, and Mr Wanley pointed to research by the Arson Control Forum showing arson’s downward spiral effect on communities leading to social decline, closure and relocation of businesses and lost jobs.

 

Words: Gareth Lightfoot, Local Democracy Reporter


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