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Eight Gravesend shops closed in illegal tobacco sales investigation


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Additional reporting by Sean Delaney

Several shops have been raided and shut down immediately this afternoon in what is believed to be the biggest co-ordinated closure of such stores by a local authority in the UK.

Eight shops in Gravesend – all believed to be involved in the sale of illegal tobacco – have been served with closure notices ahead of a court hearing where closure orders will be sought.

Hear from our reporter Sean Delaney from the scene of one of the raids. Footage: KMTV

The action by Gravesham Borough Council – supported by Kent Police, KCC Trading Standards and HMRC – is believed to be the largest co-ordinated closure of such stores by a local authority in the UK, the authority said in a statement.

The notices were served in an operation today on:

  • Monika’s International, Queen Street, Gravesend
  • Baltic Groceries, Queen Street, Gravesend
  • Milton Road Mini Mart, Milton Road, Gravesend
  • Mila Groceries, Milton Road, Gravesend
  • Milano Grocery, Milton Road, Gravesend
  • 5* Eastern European Mini Supermarket, Parrock Street, Gravesend
  • New Road Groceries, New Road, Gravesend
  • Smart Mini Mart, Pelham Road South
A closure notice is put in the window of Smart Mini Mart in Pelham Road, Gravesend
A closure notice is put in the window of Smart Mini Mart in Pelham Road, Gravesend
Smart Mini Mart in Pelham Road, Gravesend, was one of the stores closed down today
Smart Mini Mart in Pelham Road, Gravesend, was one of the stores closed down today
Police secure the door at Smart Mini Mart
Police secure the door at Smart Mini Mart

The notices, issued under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, ban all of the premises from trading ahead of a hearing at Sevenoaks Magistrates’ Court scheduled for this Friday. All eight have been sealed up by Gravesham council.

The decision to seek closure orders comes after a number of stores in Gravesend were visited as part of Operation Puggle last year, during which a number of vulnerable people were removed to places of safety and a substantial amount of illegal tobacco products confiscated.

During those raids, officers discovered a counter which had been modified to flip up, and underneath this was a hole for a matchstick which when pressed revealed a secret drawer.

Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox, Gravesham council’s cabinet member for community and leisure, praised the work of the agencies involved, all of which had been working together on the planning of today's operation over several months.

He said: “The sale of illegal tobacco is far from being the victimless, ‘harmless’ crime some would have us believe.

Officers at 5* Eastern European Mini Supermarket, Parrock Street. Photo: Gravesham Borough Council
Officers at 5* Eastern European Mini Supermarket, Parrock Street. Photo: Gravesham Borough Council
Officers at the 5* Eastern European Mini Supermarket, Parrock Street. Picture: Gravesham Borough Council
Officers at the 5* Eastern European Mini Supermarket, Parrock Street. Picture: Gravesham Borough Council

“The individuals working in these type of shops are often vulnerable young adults who are being exploited by the owners, and the shops themselves attract anti-social behaviour, making the areas around them feel unsafe.

“We have real public health concerns over the unregulated and potentially harmful contents of the products, which are being sold indiscriminately, often to very young people and without regard to their health.

“And, of course, the sale of illegal products is damaging to the trade of the many law-abiding and legitimate businesses selling tobacco in the town.

“We cannot and will not let this criminality go unchecked and are grateful for the support of our partners in this operation.”

Inspector Jim Beautridge, from Kent Police’s Gravesham Community Safety Unit, said: “Although inquiries remain ongoing, the success of this activity is a clear testament to the close and effective working relationships we have with our partners at Gravesham Borough Council, KCC’s Trading Standards and HMRC.

“By combining our resources, we are able to share information and our expertise to help achieve good results for the communities we serve, and take proportionate action against those we suspect are causing harm.

“The sale of illicit tobacco is not a victimless crime – health risks aside, these products significantly undercut legitimate businesses in the area. That can have a damaging impact on a shopkeeper’s livelihood and organised criminals are the only ones who profit.

“We will always do everything in our power to support our partners and will continue working with the council to help ensure Gravesend remains a safe place.”

Speaking after the operations were completed, Inspector Beautridge said: "We have spent the last few months raiding the shops, gathering intelligence and evidence to apply to a court for a closure order.

"Today we have served eight notices, boarded up the shops and we have a court hearing on Friday. It has been really successful.

"Obviously, the impact of the illegal cigarettes runs across many folds. You have the public health side of it which is our grounds for going to court. The cigarettes are either imported or they are counterfeit so they are not made by a tobacco company and they contain a lot of dangerous substances.

New Road Groceries, New Road, Gravesend, was among the shops closed down
New Road Groceries, New Road, Gravesend, was among the shops closed down
A police officer in New Road Groceries, in New Road, Gravesend, which was among the shops closed down
A police officer in New Road Groceries, in New Road, Gravesend, which was among the shops closed down

"In the past 18 months, there have been two school age children, teenage children, hospitalised by smoking these cigarettes with respiratory problems. That is our main overarching reason is public health.

"What we would like to see is the freeholder of the shop take steps in relation to the tenancy or leaseholder of the shop to reclaim the property or to commence eviction processes."

Closure notices have been issued

Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox added: "It might look like illegal cigarettes but it is what it funds and what it can go forward to that we are seeking to stop, including the public health concerns too.

"We need to send that clear message, if others are doing this, this needs to be the message that this is what will happen.

"This is just the start of us using our power as we have done with environmental enforcement and fly-tipping and as we have done with ASB. This is the next stage, the next powers.

"We are continuing to use what we have got and all the tools we have got as partners at our disposal to make sure this activity is dealt with."

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