“It was rife when we first started here. There were so many of them to grab hold of and they were so blasé about it.

“In Yarmouth market place, there was a girl who offered a police officer drugs. Literally walked up to and said ‘what do you want’ - opened her hand and all the wraps were in her hand. He said ‘you’re nicked, police’ and she wet herself.

“The town needed some love at that point.”

This description of Great Yarmouth in early 2017, by Sergeant Sam Scott of the town’s neighbourhood policing team (NPT), tells of a town grappling with an issue that has become all too common.

Wandile Mirazi and his gang got 16 years for peddling Class As in the town in 2015. Ten arrests were made in a single week in January 2017. In June of that year police stopped a drug dealer who was armed with a machine gun.

But a combination of diligent undercover work by the NPT and the use of sophisticated surveillance techniques by the Norfolk Police drugs squad has dramatically changed the picture in Great Yarmouth.

An investigation by this newspaper has revealed a drop in known drug activity in the town, the collapse of a majority of its county line gangs, and a feeling among residents that things are improving.

Police have made 528 county lines-related arrests in Yarmouth since 2016, including 89 arrests of teenagers, some as young as 13-years-old.

They use electronic surveillance of the road and rail network in and out of the town to identify suspected dealers and their cars, and feed raw intelligence in real time to the fast-response Moonshot vehicle unit who can intercept criminals who may be transporting drugs or exploited children.

Detective Chief Inspector Sonia Humphreys, who runs Norfolk Police’s drugs squad, explained: “Moonshot is a mobile team. They’re in cars, on road networks, and they're receiving real-time intelligence with regards to criminals who use and exploit road networks to commit crime.

"It's a blend of intelligence from a variety of sources, obviously we can't reveal all our tactics.

"But it transposes itself into vehicle-borne crime - including drugs trafficking and child exploitation."

Eastern Daily Press: DCI Sonia Humphreys run the Norfolk Police county lines drugs squadDCI Sonia Humphreys run the Norfolk Police county lines drugs squad (Image: Archant)

The tactics are working. From a high of 20 as recently as January 2020, the team now believe there are only seven county lines operating in the town, only two of which are designated “high risk”, meaning they are actively operating or linked to violence.

The men behind Great Yarmouth’s Ghost, LJ, Nico, Oscar and Spyder county lines have been given 22 years in jail between them, following arrests by the county lines team.

A “county line”, is the police term for a phone number known to addicts, which is run by a criminal gang who source drugs in a major city and import them into regional towns and cities.

The dealers send bulk texts to their contacts over the phone line, and recruit vulnerable addicts and children to work as street level dealers and runners.

In and around some of the town’s most deprived areas, residents say things are better.

Eastern Daily Press: Gillian Palmer, 63, has lived in Middlegate for 20 yearsGillian Palmer, 63, has lived in Middlegate for 20 years (Image: Archant)

Gillian Palmer, 63, has lived in the Middlegate housing estate for 20 years. She said: “It’s a lot better than it used to be when I first moved here.

“At the moment it’s just weed.

“They used to have phone boxes before, across the road there,” she said, pointing at Middlegate, the street in the centre of the estate, “and I could see them waiting and the cars coming - and it’s not as bad now.

“We used to have a hell of a lot of trouble but not any more.”

Brothers Wayne and Carl Lovick live in Clarendon Close just off Middlegate.

Carl, 46 said: “It certainly smells of weed round here, but where don’t you get that these days?

Wayne, 42, said: “It doesn’t affect us much. I’ve never seen any needles and I’ve been here three and a half years."

During the interview Wayne Lovick noticed a used canister of nitrous oxide, known as “hippy crack”, and said “I saw about 30 of those the other day, by the building opposite. Somebody had obviously had a good old party.”

Eastern Daily Press: Carl Lovick, L, and his brother Wayne. Bottom right: a used hippy crack canister.Carl Lovick, L, and his brother Wayne. Bottom right: a used hippy crack canister. (Image: Archant)

On Ordnance Road in Yarmouth a man was left with his intestines hanging out of his body during a brutal drug-related stabbing in April 2018.

Neighbours on the street have not seen a repeat of the violence, but have mixed views on whether things have improved.

Janet Wood, 66, who has lived there for 15 years, said: “There is drug dealing here. Mostly cannabis but there’s harder stuff.

“It amazes me the police don’t know the addresses - because I know the addresses just from walking the dog.

“We have a house round here, and I know if the back gate is open then they’re open for business and if it’s closed they’re not.

“The security gate at the back of the estate keeps being broken, so people can get in and out the back gate even if they don’t live here.”

One Ordnance Road resident who ask us to withhold her name said the enforcement in the town had galvanised her to kick her own drug habit.

She said: “I was using for years, my whole life. I don’t know what I was running from but I was running from something.

“When I saw the police kick in the door next door, I thought 'I don’t want that, I don’t want that life'.

“I haven’t got a lot, but what I’ve have got I want to keep, I can’t lose it. So when there were police next door I thought, ‘That’s it, it’s time to pack it in’.”

Eastern Daily Press: The alleys behind King Street on the Middlegate estate in Great Yarmouth have been a notorious drug dealing site for yearsThe alleys behind King Street on the Middlegate estate in Great Yarmouth have been a notorious drug dealing site for years (Image: Archant)

In a statement, Great Yarmouth Borough Council said: “The council supports the hard work the police continue to undertake in tackling any anti-social behaviour, including drug dealing in our town, to ensure our residents can live in safe communities without worrying about illegal behaviour.

“To support the police and partners in their continuous efforts, we urge anyone to report any incidents of unlawful drug use to the police.”

Police operational details shared with this paper have been omitted to ensure their tactics remain effective, but officers are in no doubt of the value of publicity.

Sgt Scott explained: “I think the press are important to tackling county lines in Great Yarmouth.

“When we get convictions, when we get things covered, we see from phone downloads with drug dealers that they’re looking at articles in the Mercury and the EDP, they’re sending them to each other and talking about the fact we’re catching them - and they go elsewhere.

“It’s another way of ‘target hardening’ Yarmouth. We don’t want them here.”

And, for now at least, they seem to be leaving.