Protection rackets run by rogue security firms are holding construction sites in the North-west to ransom with threats of violence. Now the government is fighting back – but might its measures do more harm than good?

‘Once they find you, you don’t argue’
‘Once they find you, you don’t argue’

Sitting behind the walls of his office in Manchester, the director of one housebuilder still does not feel safe. “Once they find you, you don’t argue,” he says. “Our sites have been trashed. We’ve had people followed. Someone on a meagre salary is not prepared to take risks with his own family for the sake of his job.”

The director does not want to be identified.

He fears “ending up in a ditch” somewhere in Manchester at the hands of gangland security firms competing for control of his site. “They arrive in the middle of the night and cover your site with their signs,” he says. “The next day, they introduce themselves and say they’ll be providing your services from now on. You don’t have much choice when that happens.”

The director is not alone. The north-west of England is experiencing a resurgence of turf wars between rogue security firms, in a flashback to problems that beset the area in the 1970s and 1980s. Godfather comparisons may seem overblown to outsiders, but they are frighteningly familiar to the contractors and legitimate security firms working in the gangs’ battlegrounds.

“If you go down the lines of the hoods, you will pay,” says one contractor. “Paying” can mean huge sums in protection money. It can also mean shootings, physical threats and the razing of sites nearing completion.

The Home Office is now trying to stamp out this problem. It has set up the Security Industry Authority, and from March next year private security personnel will need to be registered in order to work legally. But Building has learned that these measures will slash the number of legitimate guards and drive up costs as much as 20% – making illegal security firms a tempting but dangerous proposition for smaller builders. So will the government’s measures work? Or will they prove counterproductive?

Violence and extortion

Triangle Builders, a Bootle-based contractor that carries out new-build projects for housing associations, is in no doubt as to the extent of the problem with rogue security firms. “We’re up against gang warfare,” says director Alison Perry. “In certain areas of Liverpool we’ve been plagued by offers of security, but these offers are not made in the normal way. They make it fairly clear that if you don’t have their signs up on your site, it will get trashed.” And you may not be guaranteed any security for your return. “If you enter certain firms’ patches they will charge you just to put a sign up, without including other services.”

Bellway Homes is one high-profile company that has witnessed the violent tactics of unscrupulous security firms at first hand. Based in Manchester and with operations in Liverpool, the firm has found itself in the midst of gangland wars. Richard Edgington, the managing director of Bellway Homes West Lancashire, says the company has had to tread very carefully.

“You can make serious mistakes with security cover,” he says. “There are a large number of unscrupulous security firms that run more of a protection racket than a security operation. They extort money from housebuilders and contractors. It’s very important to get into bed with legitimate contractors.”

This determination to play by the rules, however, cannot fully protect a company from the criminal security element. When Edgington took up his position in 2000, he inherited the security services of above-board Marples Security. Bellway then moved some of its operations to Liverpool, and Manchester-based Marples put Edgington in touch with another legitimate firm in an attempt to help him evade the attentions of rogue companies. But despite the show of legality, some firms wouldn’t be turned away that easily.

“The firms all have their own patches,” Edgington says. “They will suddenly turn up and put their signs all over your site. It happened to us. We’ve had a number of phone calls as well. But we put our contractors on to them, a conversation takes place and they tend to go away.” Edgington is quick to stress his firm’s legality: Marples is actively promoting the security legislation, and has been working alongside authorities to develop guidelines for security companies.

Yorkshire-based Shepherd Construction has also encountered the problems. “Security on construction sites is always on the margins of legality,” Vaughan Burnand, its chief executive, says cautiously. “A lot start off as protection rackets. It’s not the best part of our industry, and it needs some regulation.” A senior source at Bovis Lend Lease, which also has a number of projects in the North-west, said the firm had been warned about rogue security firms by police and local authorities. “We are aware of the problems with security guards in the area, and know that there are unscrupulous people operating behind the scenes. The local authorities and the police have advised us that it is better to use legitimate companies, and we try to stay on the level.”

Understandably, Edgington is unwilling to discuss the precise nature of the calls from rogue firms. But he claims the situation has degenerated to a similar level to the turf wars that recently occurred between rival security firms in Scotland, which culminated in February in the jailing of gangland security boss Lewis “Scooby” Rodden and his henchmen for a campaign of assault, arson, intimidation and weapons offences (see “‘Scooby’ Rodden’s reign of terror”, above right).

Respectable security firms will be kept very busy. This does leave the unscrupulous ones to pick up the smaller contractors and builders who maybe want to risk things

Richard Edgington, north-west managing director, Bellway

Laying down the law

So far, explicit reports of gangland security activity are limited to the North-west, but this has dented confidence in security in other parts of the country. Liam Duffy, managing director of contractor Mansell, says his firm will only use guards under dire circumstances.

“We aren’t aware of any problems between rival firms in the London market, but we do have an indication of what goes on in Liverpool. I understand it’s akin to mob rule,” he says, before adding ominously: “We do get a great deal of unsolicited mail from construction security companies, offering cheap rates compared to skilled labour.”

Even without the immediate threat of violence, other unsavoury factors have contributed to a need to reform confidence in security companies. A local authority in Merseyside recently sacked two security guards for using security cameras to spy on local residents, and plant theft to the tune of £800m a year has raised questions over the integrity of some guards.

The Security Industry Authority, established under the Private Security Industry Act of 2001, is the government’s way of fighting back. The authority’s first targets for regulation were doormen and vehicle clampers, but now it is the turn of the guard.

By March 2006, all private guards – including those who work on construction sites – will have to be registered with the authority. To register, they will have to undergo criminal record and mental health checks and a complete a training course (see “Vetting the guards”, above).

Under such a system, “Scooby” Rodden and his gang would not have been able to wage their terror campaign in Scotland, as the four highest profile members of the group had previous convictions. The England- and Wales-based SIA is reluctant to admit such problems still exist south of the border, but claims that the act is necessary to drive up confidence in security measures.

“There has been a problem with confidence,” says an SIA spokesperson. “But we’re trying to ratchet up the importance of having good security. If you want to guarantee that good security, you have to work with the provider to ensure a better quality product. If guards are involved, the client has to know they don’t have

a criminal background and have the required training to do the job. Before the licensing, you wouldn’t have this information.”

Paying the price

Under the new authority, the number of people working in the security industry would be slashed. Gary Sullivan, director of logistics firm Wilson James, claims that more than 20% of the current labour force could find themselves excluded by the legislation. The remainder should meet the requirements to join, but there are question marks over how many will make the deadline for registration. The SIA says that between 105,000 and 125,000 will work as licensed guards when the registration scheme comes into force, but only 1500 applications have been returned to the SIA since the scheme opened in January. A further 28,000 have been requested, but almost halfway through the registration period, only 23% of the expected number of guards have made moves towards registering.

Against this shortage of labour, and the fact that security guards will have to cover the £190 cost of a three-year license and up to an estimated further £100 each in training costs, the price of hiring security to guard a construction site is set to soar. Sullivan predicts an increase in the cost to companies of more than 15%. This means, for example, that the cost of securing a 250,000-300,000 ft2 site will rise by between £15,000 and £20,000.

“There will be a massive demand for qualified guards,” says Sullivan. “This will be heightened further by a series of high-profile projects, especially if the Olympic bid is successful; 2012 will put a huge drain on resources in the construction industry generally, and security will be a big part of that owing to the target potential of the sites.”

The SIA and legitimate security companies believe this hike is necessary to boost the professionalism of the security industry, and to convince construction of the need to pay. “Construction has tended to view security as a grudge purchase, as is shown by the fact that the cost is driven down as far as it can go,” says a spokesperson at the SIA. “In five years’ time, security will cost more, but you will be getting a better quality product.”

Companies will carry on employing unlicensed firms until they realise they can be prosecuted. It’s all about the strength of the deterrent

Dave Betts, North West Security Guards

The lure of the dark side

Some construction companies, particularly the big names, say they are prepared to meet these costs. Bellway’s Edgington, unsurprisingly, is one of the most vocal backers of the scheme.

“It will raise the cost a lot, but the extra will be thoroughly worthwhile,” he says enthusiastically. “The licensing will be a major step forward.” However, Bellway is a high-profile company: to be caught flouting the law is too great a risk.

For a smaller firm, the temptation to cut costs looms large.

Edgington agrees with this division. “We’re doing a large number of public sector projects funded by the government. A company in that position would be foolish not to adhere to the legislation. But because of this, the respectable security firms in areas like Liverpool will be kept very busy. This does leave the unscrupulous ones to pick up the smaller contractors and builders who maybe want to risk things.”

This view is supported by events on Merseyside. Although the licensing has not yet come into force, legitimate security firms in the process of funding licensing have already started to shy away from poorly paying construction clients. One firm that has taken this route is Samson Security, a member of the International Professional Security Association. A source at the company confirmed that it had recently discontinued its services to construction sites.

“We are currently paying for licensing and training, and a lot of construction sites don’t pay enough to cover the cost of a guard,” he said. “You will only get the unlicensed firms working on smaller sites from now on.” Dave Betts, of nearby North West Security Guards, agrees. “Companies will carry on employing these people until they realise they can be prosecuted. It’s all about the strength of the deterrent.”

Facing the consequences

That deterrent, although companies may not realise it, is already strong. Under SIA terms, the security firm employing a guard has the direct responsibility for checking he is properly registered, but the construction client can be prosecuted if it knowingly allows an unlicensed guard to work on its site. If caught and tried in a magistrates’ court, the punishment could be a £5000 fine or six-month jail term. In a crown court, the fine is unlimited and the jail sentence could stretch to five years.

For some firms, scepticism over the level of policing means this won’t be an adequate threat. There are still reports of nightclubs in Liverpool employing unlicensed doormen, having evaded a police “crackdown” that left some areas untouched. But in construction, the consequences of a company ignoring the rules can be far more widespread.

One of the greatest of these is current health and safety law. The HSE and police prosecute up to 10 companies each year as a result of fatalities that occur when members of the public trespass onto unsecured sites, and dozens of others following less serious accidents. To avoid prosecution, a company has to prove it has taken all reasonable measures to make its site safe from intruders. Predictably, citing an illegal guard in your defence won’t get you far in court. The consequence could be a hefty fine, or in extreme circumstances, a conviction for manslaughter.

Manslaughter prosecutions could also arise another way. If an unlicensed guard uses force to stop an intruder breaking into a site, neither the guard nor the construction company will be offered the usual insurance protection as the guard will not be a legitimate employee.

Against this background of dodgy dealings and spiralling costs, some security experts have predicted a rise in the use of technology such as CCTV and infrared sensors to secure construction sites. An increasing number of companies are already considering these options: Galliford Try and Taylor Woodrow are among the firms making heavy use of remote systems, and the T5 project uses retina scanning to ensure only legitimate workers gain access to the site.

In some respects CCTV seems the ideal solution: it is fairly cheap, and it is unlikely to hold a gun to your head or torch your site. But it also won’t confront a trespasser. The security guard is here to stay, and companies who don’t want to pay for a professional, legal service could soon find themselves locked in close quarters with guards of another kind.

Vetting the guards: The requirements of an SIA licence

  • Identity check

  • Minimum of five years since a criminal conviction, or two years if a minor offence

  • Mental health record check

  • Competency qualification to level 2 in the National Qualifications Framework

A licence may be revoked if …

  • a guard receives a conviction, caution or warning for a relevant offence

  • police give the SIA information that a licence should be withdrawn, even if no conviction has taken place

  • a guard becomes subject to detention for mental disorder

‘Scooby’ Rodden’s reign of terror

On 18 February, a Kilmarnock High Court jailed West Coast Group boss Lewis “Scooby” Rodden and three of his henchmen for a fierce vendetta against rival security firms. Rodden, Muir MacLeod, Lee Burgan and William Bennett received a combined total of 17 years in prison for a catalogue of offences against other firms providing security services to building sites.

The Glasgow-based firm’s reign of terror included:

  • Threatening and assaulting an employee of Guardwise Security at a construction site in Ayrshire

  • Setting fire to a portable building at another Ayrshire building site after being refused work

  • Intimidation of the owners of rival Castle Security

  • Possession of weapons including a baseball bat and a samurai sword.

Sentencing, judge Lord Hardie said: “Such actions remind me of the activities of organised crime in America last century.” West Coast Group was part of a network of Scottish security firms with links to the criminal underworld, including M&M Security Scotland, co-owned by convicted murderer Paul McGovern, and Glasgow-based Frontline Security, which employed notorious Scottish gangster Paul Ferris as a “consultant”.

‘We stepped on a few toes and got a talking-to’: A security firm’s perspective

Gary Newell, a partner in Liverpool-based security firm Access Response, has learned the hard way not to attempt to get contracts in areas run by gangland firms. “We made a bit of a mistake at first,” he says. “We stepped on a few toes and were given a bit of a talking to. Now we always go and have a chat to the company in question before taking on work. To be honest, the guarding is a means to an end for us. We need the skill to get a National Security Inspectorate qualification [a national accreditation for security firms], but after we’ve achieved that we’ll quit the practice.”

This escape route may be possible for companies, but it is not such an easy option for the individuals in thrall to rogue firms. One Liverpool guarding source, who did not want to be named for fear of retribution, said guards are often intimidated into staying with rogue employers even when they want a clean break. “People have tried to move out of the security guarding world and have found things have happened,” he says. “It’s a brave move.”