Something is happening in Manchester’s Cheetham Hill. Known as Britain’s ‘counterfeit capital’, a handful of streets have been home to dozens of organised crime gangs for as long as most Mancunians can remember.
The UK trade in counterfeit goods is estimated by National Trading Standards to be worth £8.6bn a year, with the small area of Cheetham Hill, north of the city centre, estimated to be linked to almost 50% of this illicit and harmful trade. That’s a staggering statistic.
Now Greater Manchester Police (GMP), Trading Standards and various other partners have decided that enough is enough. In a short space of time, a dynamic multi-agency targeted action plan called Operation Vulcan is already having a dramatic effect.
Launched in November 2022 with the goal of tackling the organised crime gangs operating in Cheetham Hill and Strangeways, Officers working on Operation Vulcan say that more than 100 counterfeit shops have since been shut down, 96 people have been arrested for a variety of things including trademark offences, 332 tonnes of counterfeit clothing watches and shoes have been seized, and 30 joint visits have taken place with partners including Manchester City Council Trading Standards.
Detective Superintendent Neil Blackwood is the Operational Lead for Operation Vulcan. He says that the work done in conjunction with Trading Standards has been essential.
“We couldn’t do this on our own. We have powers in legislation and we are a really strong lead on this because a lot of it is criminal enterprise. But once you start to move through the volume at the shops, a lot more becomes focused on individual traders, and that’s where Trading Standards have really stepped in. They made it really clear from the start – you ask for our help, we’ll be there every single time. We’ll make sure that we’re working together. We couldn’t do it without Trading Standards, it’s as simple as that.”
In just two weeks in late March/early April, more than £6m of counterfeit clothing was seized as part of Operation Vulcan, with 18 shops shut down during the same period. A multitude of fake luxury designer brands have been found, including Canada Goose, Gucci and Nike.
Meanwhile, gangs often use young migrants as illegal labour, paying them as little as £10 a day to be so-called ‘spotters’ (people who watch for police) or to add labels to counterfeit goods.
As for the seized contraband, much of it is recycled. Since the inception of Operation Vulcan, more than 300 tonnes have been repurposed and turned into items such as hats, gloves, coats, dog bedding and house insulation which can benefit charities and community organisations.
However, as anyone working in Trading Standards knows, part of the problem of closing down shops selling counterfeit goods is making sure that those outlets stay shut. How difficult is it for the police to ensure that stores fronting illicit goods don’t reopen a few months down the line?
“If we’re going through a property, we’re doing everything we can to decommission that property until the landlord says, OK, I’ll become legitimate or I’ll lease it to legitimate people,” says Blackwood. “For a lot of the properties, we’re looking at closure orders. But we also work differently; for example, instead of putting wood on a door to seal it, we get a firm to come with metal sheeting. It’s permanently closed until we say, right, you’re OK to open it again. So the landlords are forced to engage with us. That’s been really successful… every shop we’ve raided so far has not reopened as a counterfeit goods shop.”
Lisa Seamark is Trading Standards Manager at Manchester City Council. She says that while Trading Standards has previously done a lot of work in Cheetham Hill, including the completion of a number of massive seizures, keeping the momentum up has been challenging given Trading Standards’ other responsibilities.
“The difference now is the momentum that Operation Vulcan is bringing because of the number of dedicated officers they’ve got specific to that area,” says Seamark. “It’s not just counterfeiting as there are lots of issues, but obviously the counterfeiting is a driver. It’s helpful having that dedicated resource, and Vulcan are saying that they’ll keep that resource going for the next couple of years. We are there to support them in any way we can because it’s fantastic for us and it’s fantastic for Manchester.”
Seamark and Blackwood agree that engagement and education have been key, and not just with landlords and the local community. Education of the wider public has been – and will continue to be – crucial.
Seamark says: “Counterfeiting is not a victimless crime but that’s what people have generally thought. They’ve just thought, what’s the harm in it? But they’re not thinking about the other harm that’s going on behind the counterfeit industry. At the end of the day, this is organised crime, and would anybody give their money directly to an organised crime gang? No, they wouldn’t.”
She continues: “There’s so much more to it that people don’t think about; they are just thinking of getting that bargain and they’re not thinking about what’s behind that bargain. It’s been really great to be able to use Operation Vulcan to get those messages out to people.”
In terms of safety, Seamark says: “We recently submitted a couple of samples of counterfeit goods for safety testing. We found a pair of counterfeit sunglasses that failed the test for UVA and UVB transmittance. We also had counterfeit earrings with very high levels of cadmium in them. The safety of the goods isn’t something people think about when buying counterfeit goods.”
Today, the infamous stretch of road in Cheetham Hill feels different. Many of the shops remain boarded up, police tape can be spotted flapping in the breeze, and there’s evidence of a police presence.
Looking to the future, there is a long-term multi-agency commitment to the strategic redevelopment of Cheetham Hill and Strangeways. Nobody thinks this will happen overnight but, with money and resources being deployed effectively to make the area a hostile place for criminals to operate, there are reasons to be optimistic.