I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


The word on the street at the moment suggests that there is a turf war going down for the control of the drugs market in the North West of Dumfries. There are two gangs fighting it out and both have travelled many miles to wage their war. Maybe it is sensible to avoid too many specifics here. Let’s say that these charming individuals hail from two of Britain’s great port cities which once upon a time provided the gateway to our Empire; cities which have now hit harder times. One lies some 120 miles to the south of Dumfries. The other is 80 miles to the north. I am sure you get the picture.

The word on the street is that these raiders have turned up in town with guns and the police are all over the situation like a rash. Let’s hope so. We’ve had a major drug problem here in Dumfries for years, but thankfully guns have seldom played any part in proceedings. Long may that continue.

Much more interesting than the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ is surely the ‘why?’. Let’s face it, on the surface of things it is a pretty big ‘why?’ Dumfries is anything but a boom town. Once upon a time we were a thriving market town serving a booming and luxuriant stretch of productive farmland. Those days are long gone. Unemployment is sky high and prospects are lower than the Atlantic Trench. Dumfries is typical of so many towns all across the post industrial western world; places where coal was once mined or cotton spun or steel smelted or ships built. Over a span of a hundred years or so, all such activity moved away to the East and these places have become pretty well pointless with vast Tesco stores filling the space where factories and coal mines and ship yards once provided a living to thousands. Nowadays the public sector and benefits drive what is left of the economy and of course both are being cut to the bone.

North West Dumfries is home to four sprawling areas of what we now call ‘social housing’. Around 20,000 people live there. The Government up in Edinburgh considers the area to be ‘less favoured’ and therefore eligible for additional financial support. Many locals love to tell war stories about how bad things are, but all this really goes to show is that they have never visited the likes of Croxteth or Moss Side or Peckham.

A fictional Dumfries provides the backdrop for several of my novels and much of the excitement is to be found in a scheme that I call Sunnybank Estate. There has always been a degree of debate about which of the four schemes of NW Dumfries is the real life Sunnybank. Time and again I have pointed out that Sunnybank is entirely a figment of my imagination, but nobody seems much interested in listening. In my stories, drugs being used, abused and dealt tends to play a pretty large role. This is hardly surprising as I have spent the last ten years of my life at First Base which has provided a frontline view of the desperate underworld that illegal drugs inevitably creates.

For years the local wisdom has been adamant that NW Dumfries is full of ‘junkies’. This is unduly harsh as it suggests that people who are born and raised in the four schemes are somehow genetically engineered to become depended on heroin’s warm embrace. This of course is the very worst of prejudiced nonsense. However there can be no denying the fact that there are an unusually high number of drug addicts to be found in the area. The reason for this is down to stuff that Adam Smith would have been more than familiar with: good old fashioned supply and demand.

Over the last 15 years or so, the local cops have had a number of highly successful clampdowns in many of the region’s smaller towns. Dealers have been rounded up and locked up thanks to a number of well co-ordinated dawn raids. A few years ago ‘Operation Emperor’ rendered Stranraer virtually drug free. Not a single dealer was left to ‘punt kit’ once the doors had been knocked off their hinges at five in the morning. But that was only half the story. At the time of ‘Emperor’ there were about 600 heroin users in Stranraer and they were all left hanging on the wire and desperate for a hit. Some rattled and gave up. Some were slotted onto the Methadone programme. A majority, maybe 400 of so, migrated east to the nearest place where heroin was still on sale; Dumfries.

They came to town and declared themselves homeless and spent time in the hostels. Eventually the Section 5 Referral rule meant that they were offered tenancies and these tenancies were invariably to be found in the four schemes of North West Dumfries. Over the years the same thing happened several more times as successful police clampdowns created new migrations.

So, yes. There are indeed a higher than normal number of drug addicts to be found in NW Dumfries, but most were not born and bred. So how many? A rough guess would suggest somewhere in the region of 750. Most are now on the Methadone programme and they have been on the green stuff for a while. They don’t tend to commit so much crime as they did a few years ago for the simple reason that crime is harder to commit. There are many fewer shops to shoplift these days and ones who still hang on have sheets full of pictures highlighting the faces of those with multiple convictions for drug related theft. The harsh truth is that the 750 are not as young as they once were. Heroin addiction is very much yesterday’s news. The last couple of generations of youngsters have been way too smart to get suckered into a life of endless rattling and drudgery. Those who are left on the books of the drugs trade are in their thirties and forties now. Their health is poor and fading. Most are mere shells of the people they once were. They hobble around with leg ulcers and fade quietly away with Hepatitis C. They lack the energy for a crime wave. In their own words, most have become ‘Giro Junkies’. They drift through empty day after empty day care of high doses of Methadone and daytime TV, and once a fortnight they treat themselves to two or three ‘bags’ of smack when their fairy godmother in the Department of Work and Pensions drops £120 of so into their bank accounts.

So why on earth would two aspiring gangs from far away have any interest in travelling so far to fight it out for the franchise to sell this group of lost souls their fortnightly trip to oblivion?

I reckon the answer might well be found in the new Universal Credit which is set to be trialled here in the autumn. Universal Credit is very much the love child of many bright young things who took the journey from public school to Oxford and a shining degree in PPE. Then it was a couple of years of unpaid bag carrying for a junior minister or shadow minister. A place in central office and a seat at the table in the think tanks and focus groups. Next would be the chance to fight a no hope Parliamentary seat where they could demonstrate an ability to tow the party line, say the right things, bubble over with enthusiasm and look good for the cameras. Then at last they were rewarded with a safe seat in the mother of all Parliaments. This new career path has nothing to do with any particular party, though Eton seems to provide an unusually high number of Tory bright young things.
Westminster is now dominated by these evangelically power dressed types and we are about suffer as a result of their born again certainties. These are people for whom the theory is everything. They have an image of the poor that is part Dickens, part Walt Disney, part ‘praise the Lord Ohio style’ and part tabloid loathing. They have never spent any of their sheltered lives in places like NW Dumfries and they have no conception of what makes such places tick.

And so they have come up with Universal Credit. Give these poor people some responsibility they cry. Let them pay their own rent and council tax bills like other hard working, law abiding citizens. Trust them. Make them self reliant. Hell, make them like proper Americans with a new ‘can do’ mentality and church for all on a Sunday morning.

Oh dear.

Right now most of the 750 addicts up in NW Dumfries get their benefits in three separate chunks. £240 a month goes into their bank account. About £300 a month heads into the bank account of their social landlord in the form of Housing Benefit to keep a roof over their heads. About £70 a month or so heads straight into the account of the local council as Council Tax Benefit.

The recipient therefore only ever gets a chance to spend £240 of the £610 that is paid out on their behalf.

Well, all of that is about to change and change in a big way. The bright young things have decided that the best thing for poor people is if they are given the responsibility to look after their own affairs. To be given the responsibility of paying their own bills. This is going to raise them up and give them self assurance and enable them to get jobs and credit cards and spend lots of money on the High St and thereby rescue the country from its decline.

Dumfries and Galloway has volunteered itself to be one of the guinea pig regions to see how the brave new world looks in real time.

Let’s have a look at a few sums. Right now the 750 addicts of NW Dumfries have £2.16 million a year to spend with the Drugs Trade care of the DWP. In October that figure is about to grow significantly as the new Universal Credit will put a further £3.33 million on the table.

It’s a fair chunk of cash. And whenever a chunk of cash like this comes available for the grabbing, organised crime gangs tend to be pretty quick off the mark. How many ‘Giro Junkies’ are to be found in the UK as a whole? A conservative guess would suggest about a quarter of a million and the majority live in cities where the housing benefits cover much higher rents than NW Dumfries. Let’s make the maths relatively easy. Let’s assume that the new Universal Credits will deliver up and additional £500 a month to the ‘Giro Junkies’ of Britain. £6000 a year. Multiplied by 250,000.


We’re talking a cool £1.5 billion and that is a serious chunk of cash in anyone’s terms. You can get a whole bunch of villas by the sun kissed waters of the Caribbean with that kind of cash.

So it kind of looks like we are going to have two trials running up in NW Dumfries in the autumn.  All those bright young people with their PPE degrees will be watching to see if the beleaguered poor are transformed into highly motivated go getters who will set the High St alight. And the hard bitten execs at the top of the drugs industry will be finding ways to ensure that every penny of the new money on the table finds its way into their pockets. If you have watched ‘The Wire’, at this point it is maybe worth picturing Stringer Bell with calculator in hand and a calculating look on his face. It’s the Stringer with his glasses on look.

It seems pretty obvious to me who will win out. The guys who run the drugs trade know exactly how things play out in the schemes and sink estates of Britain. Their business model will be magnificently simple.

  1. Find out exactly how much Universal Credit a punter is going to receive.
  2. Find out where they live.
  3. Find out the day when they get paid.
  4. Give them a credit line up to the amount of cash they will be getting.
  5. On the day, accompany them to the bank or cash machine and take possession of every penny.
  6. Beat the living daylights out of anyone who fails to honour their side of the agreement.

Yo String!

Not so very hard is it? The bright young things are about to give the drugs industry the biggest boost it has had in many years. Organised crime is good at this stuff. Check out the way the Calabrian Mafia are able to get millions of Euros out of the EU’s Agricultural Subsidies thanks to some quick footed bribery and violence. All big chunks of public cash act as a magnet for the new Mafias and they are hugely adept at latching onto every last penny. Giving £1.5 million of cold hard cash to people who are addicted to drugs is almost uniquely idiotic. The phrase ‘taking candy of babies’ springs to mind.

So who are the victims of the bright young things ande their Neo Liberal nonsense? Well, first and foremost will be the social landlords who won’t get the rent paid. Can our local housing associations stand a £3 million drop in income when 750 of their tenants don’t pay any rent? Doubtful. In time, the 750 will be evicted and they will be denied homeless accommodation as they will have ‘intentionally’ made themselves homeless. They will have few opportunities to ‘sofa surf’ as most of those in flats where ‘sofa surfing’ is an option will have been evicted themselves.

So it will be more people sleeping under bridges and in shop door ways.

And maybe a few housing associations will go belly up.

And there will be something of a spike in the price of villas in Antigua.

And those super clever chaps in the City of London will rake in lots of extra commission fees as they launder the £1.5 billion.

So maybe it isn’t so hard to understand why two gangs from many miles away are willing to fight it out for the drug market in NW Dumfries after all.

Oh what a complete and utter bloody mess.



  1. Mark, Jan Needle here - one of your greatest admirers. I want to put this on my Facebook page but I don't know how to. Any help, please?

  2. Sorry Jan - I have just about managed to work out how to operate this page but my knowledge of all things Facebook is woeful!

  3. left click - highlight the article then copy and then paste it to your 'what's on your mind page - easy done.