The man behind one of the North-East’s leading security companies has a New Year resolution – to tackle the rise in rural crime across the region. PETER BARRON talks to Francis Jones

AS he looks forward to 2021, Francis Jones is focusing on a new field of expertise as he passionately plots the next phase of a business operation that has already surprised the doubters.

The former professional boxer has achieved what he set out to do when he launched The Sparta Group 12 years ago – turning it into one of the most successful security companies in the North-East.

There were those who scoffed at his ambitions when he set out in a notoriously competitive sector, but Sparta has never stopped growing, now generating more than £1m of revenue a year, and employing 80 staff, many of them ex-military.

The company has built an impressive collection of high-profile clients. For example, ISG, the principal design and build contractor for the massive Amazon development on the outskirts of Darlington, entrusted Sparta with keeping the site safe, and the project was completed without a hitch.

But Francis now has his sights on a fresh mission – to set up a Rural Enforcement Team, within the parameters of the North-East, and made up of experts with the skills, knowledge, and experience to operate in the countryside, where rural crime is on the rise.

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The plan is to launch ‘Sparta Rural Enforcement’ as a new arm of the business, on a three-month trial, to test its effectiveness in more remote areas. And, in order, for it to work, he is aiming to predominantly employ former police officers who have retired from countryside beats.

They will operate in unmarked vehicles, in designated criminal hotspots, at random times throughout the week, and relay information direct to the police.

“As the population increases, so in turn should the number of police officers,” says Francis. “Instead, they have decreased, so unless there is an element of privatization, we will see crime continuing to grow and vigilante groups being set up.

“Business owners are sick – farmers are sick – and I have no doubt that many police officers are tired of the lack of support with, sometimes, one officer covering a vast area.”

The aim of Sparta Rural Enforcement is to plug the gaps with a scheme that will cost customers £100 per week over a three-month experimental period.

“I know there are ex-police officers out there who have a wealth of experience in dealing with rural crime. They know the countryside inside out – better than anyone. They know the tricks of the trade. They even know the names of the criminals who target rural areas,” he says.

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“They may have retired from the police but still feel they have a lot to offer. They might even be a bit bored and want to get back to what they do best – and we want to hear from them. We want them to be our eyes and ears in the countryside, using their niche skill-set to form the backbone of Sparta Rural Enforcement.”

It is a fact that the cost of rural crime has risen in every region of the UK over the past year, and the economic pressures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic are bound to have exacerbated the problem.

NFU Mutual is the UK’s leading rural insurance company, providing cover for three quarters of farms and rural businesses, and every year it gathers statistics to provide a detailed picture of the financial and social impact of rural crime.

In 2019, rural crime cost the UK £54m – and increase of almost nine per cent – and the North-East’s share of that alarming figure was £8.6m. The bottom line is that countryside criminals are costing Britain a fortune and it’s getting worse.

The theft of agricultural vehicles is at the forefront of the increase in criminal activities in the countryside. For the second consecutive year, that category added up to a national loss of £9.3m – an increase of nearly 25 per cent.

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Livestock is also being increasingly targeted, according to NFU Mutual, with a nine per cent increase in 2019, costing the country’s farmers £3m. On top of that, the pandemic has also led to a rise in rustling, with initial figures pointing to a 15 per cent year on year jump in April 2020.

“Theft of tractor global positioning systems (GPS) is a major concern as farms move to using precision technology to run field operations,” reports NFU Mutual. “Typically costing £8,000 to £10,000, GPS equipment has become a highly-prized item on the shopping lists of rural thieves, particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown, where smaller, high-value items appear to have been targeted to meet demand overseas.”

The official figures spell it out very clearly, and The Sparta Group has also seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of an increase in rural crimes, such as poaching, quad bike and diesel thefts, criminal damage, fly-tipping and trespassing.

Sparta already has important countryside clients, including Raby Estates, at Staindrop, where security officers and dog patrols provide surveillance, reassurance, and peace of mind.

Acorn Dairy, near Darlington, is another long-standing rural client, while two well respected companies running countryside holiday parks across the UK – Maguires and Meridian – are more recent customers.

“They’ve needed extra security due to the closures over lockdown, and we’re proud of the role we’ve been able to play in preventing crime by arranging round-the-clock guards,” explains Francis.

“There was a recent example where it paid dividends when we came across a case of badger baiting on an estate overlooking one of the parks in Teesdale. We were able to take the registration number of a vehicle involved and alert the estates manager.”

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Now, Francis wants to build on that experience by creating a new, dedicated, specialist arm of Sparta to protect farmers and rural businesses.

“I want to emphasise that our aim is to complement what the police forces do,” he says. “The simple fact is that they don’t have the resources to be everywhere. They have enough on their hands coping with urban crime, so we aim to plug the gap and be their wingmen.”

Francis plans to start the trial in Teesdale and North Yorkshire and build from there.

“If 10 customers come on board, then the £1,000 generated will be spent on officers working that week. If 20 come on board, that will lead to more patrols within your community. There are 200 farms in Teesdale alone, so if all 20 come on board, that would be £20,000 spent every week keeping that area safe,” he explains.

“I want to bring in people that are capable of operating without interference, on the basis that they are the experts in their field. They know what’s best and, as long as they achieve results, they’ll be left to get on with the job.

“I’m confident it will grow, because I know there’s a demand, but we have to get started – and the process begins with building the teams of rural experts.”

While the plans for Sparta Rural Enforcement take shape for a New Year launch, Sparta’s existing business has continued to strengthen, despite the global economic challenges of the pandemic.

The most recent additions to the client base include Bishop Auckland family business, Seagraves Pallets.

“They’d been having a few problems with intruders, but we quickly arranged round-the-clock cover, including dogs, and there have been no issues since,” says Francis.

Sparta has also started working with Applebridge Construction, in Sunderland, providing emergency response and CCTV monitoring.

And the security company was also called in to look after the site of the new Darlington Fire Station that’s being built on the town’s ring road. Dog patrols, CCTV and guards have been part of the security mix and Francis describes it as a “real honour” to have been asked to support such a vital public service.

Twelve years after its launch, Sparta goes from strength to strength, and now Francis Jones wants to blaze a trail in a new direction – by helping the farming community and rural businesses stem the tide of countryside crime.

New fields of expertise are on the horizon.

  • Could you be part of Sparta Rural Enforcement? Do you have specialist skills, experience, and knowledge in rural areas? Please get in touch via www.spartasecurityuk.co.uk