BBC BLOGS - West Country Cash

Archives for May 2010

'One key fits all' tractor policy blamed for countryside crime wave

Dave Harvey | 14:57 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010


Farmers always have something to moan about. At least, that's how it often looks to townies. Too wet, too dry, too many regulations, not enough regulations for foreigners, you name it.

But here's something they really are the victims of: Crime.

A rather particular agricultural crime, in fact. Tractor theft, as you can imagine, hits farmers much more than the rest of us. And last year, £1m of farm vehicles were stolen from South West Farms, according to the insurers' group, the National Plant & Equipment Register (TER).

"It's extremely frustrating," says Rob Canvin, who farms near Somerton, in Somerset, and has lost three vehicles in the last month.

"If a member of the public had his Ferrari nicked, he'd be furious - but these vehicles cost more than that, and it's really really annoying."

The extraordinary thing is, the manufacturers seem to make life easy for country crooks. When you buy any new car these days, alarms and immobilisers are standard. Yet on most tractors and farm vehicles, even a unique key is asking too much.

Yes that's right. All Massey Fergusson tractors have the same key , except the company's 4400 series. All John Deeres have the same ignition key, as do JCB vehicles.

"I've got a key in my pocket that will start every vehicle behind me," claims Nick Mayell.

Fortunately for West Country farmers, Mr Mayell is an investigator, not a thief. He is, in fact, the only full time investigator for the TER, based in Bath. He is, if you like, 'Nipper of the Farmyard'.

He shows us how easily a big digger he's recently recovered can be stolen. It is so simple, I'm not allowed to show TV viewers or this article will turn into a "how to steal a tractor" film.

Most of the major manufacturers confirmed to us that universal keys have been their policy up to now, although several are reviewing this after thefts increased so much recently. Fendt is the first tractor maker to go down the route of unique micro-chipped keys.

"It's very serious crime," says Mr Mayell, "this machine new would cost about £55 -60,000 - if you were caught with £55,000 worth of drugs, you go to prison for a long time - people get caught with this, and usually it's just a slap on the wrist".

The vehicles end up all over the world, sometimes traded for cash to poor farmers in Kurdistan or Iraq, often exchanged for drugs in the Middle East. You'd think it would be tricky to drive a huge farm tractor or digger onto a ferry unnoticed, but Mr Mayell says the police have, quite literally, been told to look the other way.

"Police Force priorities dictate that they're checking what's coming in, so what goes out is not so much of a priority."

The Police are cracking down on agricultural crime, Avon & Somerset Police recently launched Farm Watch - designed to get farmers talking to each other about theft - sharing crucial clues.
But until the manufacturers decide to fit unique keys to each vehicle, many farmers like Rob Canvin feel they might as well leave their barn doors wide open at night.

I'll be reporting live for BBC Points West from the Royal Bath & West Show from Wed 2 June until Friday. If you've got a story from the countryside, come and find us at the BBC Somerset Bus, near the Village Green, or get me on twitter.

Bristol Airport Expansion: The Final Council Showdown

Dave Harvey | 11:47 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

Update : Tuesday 25 May
The Airport expansion plans have been PASSED, by a majority of councillors, the vote was 10 -2. Now the Secretary of State for planning, Eric Pickles, must give it the final all clear - or, of course, throw the whole thing out.

it looks like I'll be a Bristol Airport frequent flyer, though not from Lulsgate but to it.

So this is it.

Fourteen Councillors will meet in Weston Town Hall this afternoon, and decide whether the £150m project should be cleared for take off.

I'll be updating regularly from the meeting on twitter, so click here to get the latest.

We've been through the arguments zillions of times, and they'll do it all again today. New readers, start here.

Council officials have backed it. In March, the junior planning committee backed it.

A betting man would think a tenner on an Airport victory was easy winnings. But then, just last week, this intervention from a local doctor.

"Traffic congestion already has a major effect on many villages in North Somerset, particularly in Barrow Gurney, and I can only imagine how much worse this will be when passenger numbers are set to almost double in number."

Many would agree. Airport bosses, of course, would point to the £5m they are offering to alleviate local jams. But this is not just any old country GP. Dr Liam Fox is, of course, the MP for North Somerset, and now in the Cabinet. His qualms about the tiny roads around Lulsgate are well known here, but now he has some real power. And here's the threat:

"Given that we now have a new Government in place, and will expect any future transport policy to include regional airports, it would seem unreasonable to many of my constituents that decisions are being made on an issue of such importance based on the previous Governments Air Transport White Paper from 2003."

Is Dr Fox saying the new government will squash Bristol's plans? Certainly the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, will have the final say. And David Cameron's government has already abandoned Labour's plans for a new runway at Heathrow.

The airport plans may have cleared customs, they may even be boarding the plane, as it were. But as any budget holidaymaker knows, you can't relax until the wheels have left the tarmac. And airport bosses won't be relaxing until they see the diggers arrive and the ink is dry.

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