The sleepy Kent town attempting a fightback against thugs shoplifters and low level crime

The Kent town of Cranbrook is attempting to fight back against low-level crime
-Credit: (Image: Simon Finlay)


Cranbrook is not a town most would associate with intimidating louts or rampant shoplifting. But in recent years, there have been growing concerns about both. Now the parish council is taking the lead in sorting it all out.

More than a century and a half ago, a loose collective of artists known as the Cranbrook Colony captured glimpses of what life was like for normal folk through their work.

Not for them pastoral scenes or bucolic idyll, more the ordinariness of life – children at play; a flower seller in the street; mother and child at the kitchen table or a shawled woman in the chimney corner. Some were created in Kent, others inspired by it.

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To the outsider today, Cranbrook is a picture postcard little town of 7,000 people – neat, affluent and educated. It is sought-after and fiercely proud.

On a drizzly, rather cold weekday morning at the back end of May, all is as it should be. Old people on sticks are climbing the stone steps to the Vestry Hall for tea and biscuits.

Men in hi-vis waistcoats drop parcels off to business owners. A builder’s truck thunders around the corner into the high street towards one of Cranbrook’s half-built edges.

Then, a pair of lads, dressed in grubby hoodies, trackie bottoms and expensive-looking trainers bowl down the steps from St Dunstan’s church graveyard. Hoods up, heads down.

One narrowly misses clattering into a pensioner as she totters up the pavement, not even pausing to look back.

The other is carrying a device playing, loudly, music of a sort. They don’t seem the types for a coffee morning or a browse at an art gallery or antique shop.

But they do hint at alarming tales of low-level crime, thuggery, intimidation, wanton vandalism and thefts from local shops.

Youngsters, teenagers mainly, seem to be the root of the loutish conduct, although the stealing has no age, gender or background pattern.

So emboldened have the thieves become, one brazen individual turned to a retailer as he departed the store with an armful of goodies and declared with a smirk: “Same time tomorrow.”

Cranbrook and Sissinghurst Parish Council members, mindful of their own constraints and those of the police, have begun regular “inter-agency” meetings.

That’s the polite way of saying they’ve had enough and they want action even if they have to initiate it themselves.

There is even talk of hiring a council-financed security team to do the work the police cannot or, depending on who you speak to, will not do.

The meetings bring together local councillors – parish, borough and county – with police and others, such as a borough community safety officer, to talk through strategies to combat the issues.

Cllr Colin Gilbert
Cllr Colin Gilbert -Credit:Simon Finlay

Parish council vice chairman Colin Gilbert says problems have persisted for around three years and while loutishness can come in waves as teenagers grow up, there seems a perpetuation of trouble.

“Cranbrook isn’t the crime centre of Kent but we do suffer from antisocial behaviour,” he said.

Locals will tell you that yobs target houses – possibly for TikTok challenges – with eggs and high kicks.

They have ripped the doors off the parish-run public toilets and adorned it with graffiti. (The council managed that problem by taking the doors and locks off completely and leaving them open all day and night.)

Inconsequential things get broken, there is unpleasant littering, evidence of drug use and threatening behaviour towards anyone if they are challenged. It goes on and on.

Cllr Gilbert adds: “We’re trying to get something done because the police can’t do it. When you pin them down, they say they can’t be everywhere at once and that they are thin on the ground.

“I do understand they can do a shoplifter in the morning and then spend the rest of the shift processing the paperwork. I get that. I do.”

CCTV was once one of Kent Police’s best assets in detecting and bringing perpetrators to book. Now the youngsters even “perform” in front of the cameras, knowing the chances of consequences are slim to non-existent.

For the moment, the parish has to do what it can with the thinly-spread police resource, the Cranbrook parish warden and CCTV in hotspots.

Cllr Gilbert says: “We have to communicate that people must report crimes otherwise we haven’t got the numbers to justify more police. But there is a reluctance because when they do report stuff, they think nothing gets done.”

He adds: “Look, I am a volunteer, an ordinary person and I do this to help the community. I’m not trained for this sort of thing.”

Cllr Sean Holden in Cranbrook
Cllr Sean Holden in Cranbrook -Credit:Simon Finlay

Kent County Council member for the area, Cllr Sean Holden, is prepared to allocate his annual membership allowance towards CCTV in the area’s hotspots.

He says: “You have to wonder what the police are doing. The police don’t come out to burglaries and a host of other petty and not so petty crimes, so it does beg the question – what do they do, then?”

According to Cllr Holden, when he conducted an informal tour of the town’s retailers, one shopkeeper made a startling remark.

He said: “This person described a shoplifter breezing out of the premises with a load of stuff under his arm and when sort of challenged, this guy turned round and said ‘Same time tomorrow’.

“It’s outrageous.”

One shop in the centre of Cranbrook leapt to the defence of the police, citing an increase in pro-activity.

The retailer, who has been hit countless times by thieves, said: “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. They are all ages, all types and no particular time of day, either.

“It seemed to get really bad when the cost of living crisis hit. People were stealing anything and everything – food, alcohol, toiletries, you name it.

“But the police are coming round to see us more often and they take away CCTV footage and keep us up to date with the progress. To be honest, they’ve been brilliant.”

Another business owner was less complimentary.

He said: “Yes, there has been a bit more visibility from the cops but people are still nicking stuff. Even if they are identifying the culprits, do they get charged? Do they go to court? Do they get convicted? I don’t think so.”

According to Kent Police, in March there were 70 reported crimes in the Cranbrook area. Top amongst these were shoplifting (23), violence and sexual offences (14) and antisocial behaviour 13.

This is more than double the same month last year when there were just 34 crimes reported but similar to 2022 (67 reports).

Kent Police says that every crime reported “is taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, based on the evidence available” while officers liaise with businesses to review reported shoplifting offences to identify trends and target offenders.

In a side street, near one of the town’s troubled areas, a patrol car is parked up on a pavement on a double yellow line. Leave aside the parking violation, it seems obvious why it is there and not left at the station in Wheatfield Drive up the road – the deterrent value.

Laura Toop, chair of the Independent Advisory Group to Kent Police for the Tunbridge Wells area, says a “deeper dive” needs to be undertaken into the underlying root causes to Cranbrook’s problems by studying statistics and trends culled from census material.

She adds: “There’s definitely a need for something and we certainly need to have more conversations about safety.”

Mrs Toop recognises too that the older person’s perception that the “police are responsible for every aspect of safety isn’t true of the younger generations”.

She adds: “The solution is much bigger than the police.”

Inspector Chris Mayers of the Tunbridge Wells Community Safety Unit said: ‘We are acutely aware of the recent concerns in Cranbrook around crime and issues related to antisocial behaviour, and I would like to reassure residents that addressing these concerns remains a key focus for our officers who have been carrying out enhanced patrols across several areas of the town.”

Several youngsters have been issued with acceptable behaviour agreements (ABA) for incidents in the Crane Lane area. If breached, they could end up in court.

He added: “We are also ensuring that parents are involved in this process, which gets young people to take responsibility for unacceptable behaviour, the likes of which cause real distress and anxiety to those affected including older and more vulnerable people.”

Roy Gibson, a 60-year-old medically retired chef in Cranbrook
Roy Gibson, a 60-year-old medically retired chef in Cranbrook -Credit:Simon Finlay

Roy Gibson, a 60-year-old medically retired chef, has run the gauntlet of the yobs who gather in the town’s more notorious areas.

He has suffered two heart attacks and has ongoing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years. His walking is impaired and so is his speech.

Out exercising his border terriers, he is regarded as fair game for his tormentors who, he says, range in age from about 10 to their early 20s.

Mr Gibson says: “They verbally abuse me. Call me simple, a w***** and other names. They take the p*** because of the way I talk, you know, general abuse.

“If you say anything, they say: ‘What are you going to do about it? I’ll smack your face.’ Stuff like that. You hardly ever see the police around here and it’s too scary to go out at night.

“Me and my wife, Anna, moved here eight years ago thinking it was a nice place, but it’s not.”

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