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Feature

The disused town centre properties which become prime real estate for cannabis factories

12 May 2024 6 minute read
The moment the men tried to make their escape was captured by a near by camera. Picture: Supplied to LDRS

Twm Owen, local democracy reporter

A rooftop pursuit may sound like something from a television crime drama but that was the real-life scene on an otherwise quiet Valentine’s Day.

The drama had started shortly after 2pm on Wednesday, February 14 this year as police attempted to force their way into the disused George pub in Pontypool town centre.

“We were having lunch and watching it from a second-floor coffee shop when someone broke out from the ceiling and on to the roof and my heart was in my chest, thinking he would fall off,” recalled a nearby shop worker.

“Another one came up on the roof as well and they were slipping as they couldn’t get any purchase and that’s when they started ripping the tiles off. The police closed the road and the two men dropped down to the roof on the next building.”

The two men, both in their 20s, who climbed on to the roof, in an eventually futile bid to avoid capture, were found to be illegal immigrants, like a number before them and since, from Albania.

Class B drug

The grade II-listed Edwardian era pub, built in 1905, is thought to have been closed since 2017 but its last use, until the Valentine’s Day raid, was as a factory farm producing the class B drug.

That was of no real surprise to those who work nearby, said the woman, who didn’t want to give her name: “We could smell the cannabis around the town, it was sort of obvious why the police were barging in there.”

A view of the George from a nearby building. Picture: LDRS

Cannabis farms

Shop workers can reel off a list of neglected, and seemingly empty buildings, where cannabis farms have been discovered.

Large commercial properties with no commerce to sustain them have become a sad feature of a town centre, protected as a conservation area, but where there is a fear of a gloomy commercial present and future.

“It’s a lovely old building,” is how Mary Jones described the George but she said “it’s of no real surprise in this day and age” to learn it had been transformed into what a judge called a “significant and sophisticated” cannabis factory where police found 437 plants growing in the cellar, the ground floor and six further rooms.

“I’m of an age I can remember when the town was buzzing,” said Ms Jones from Abersychan who was shopping on Commercial Street and admiring another imposing, impressive but empty structure.

“I came to the market one Friday and I was the only one in there. I remember when I was young they’d be walking over their shoulders. The downfall of Pontypool was when they built the by-pass.”

At risk building

Further along Commercial Street another grade II-listed building stands empty and seemingly without purpose, though plans to bring it back into retail use were approved last year.

The former Co-operative department store, built in the art deco style in 1938, charts Pontypool’s decline. What was the town’s grandest shop became a branch of the Hyper Value discount chain in the 1980s and later an at risk building.

In November 2020 police found 581 cannabis plants, worth £374,000, growing inside tended to by a homeless Iraqi asylum seeker who a judge said it wasn’t even clear was being financially rewarded.

The grade II-listed former Coop store in Pontypool where a cannabis farm was discovered in 2020. Picture: LDRS

Overwhelming smell

Pontypool’s empty buildings continue to be put to use for growing cannabis with “the overwhelming smell” having led police to the former Mario’s cafe, again on George Street, on March 25 this year where they found 388 plants worth £197,000 growing.

Two Albanian men were arrested and convicted while in Abersychan the former Co-op funeral home, on Limekiln Road, was raided earlier in March with 326 plants valued at £145,000 uncovered.

Again an Albanian national was arrested and convicted with the court told he’d had to travel to the UK by dinghy, from Calais, and promised work, only to find himself holed up in an abandoned building tending to an illegal crop.

Department store

Gwent Police said the farms uncovered in February and March this year formed part of its ongoing Operation Forester which by the end of January had already seized 11,500 plants worth £7m, including uncovering a factory with 3,000 plants worth £2.1m, last October, in the former Wildings department store that had traded for 145 years in Newport before closing in 2019.

Police, in January, had promised more arrests as they said they’d “unearthed an organised crime group working not just in the Newport area but across Gwent and further afield”.

Torfaen Borough Council, which is investing Levelling Up funding in redeveloping a disused church and transforming a toilet block into a restaurant in an effort to revive Pontypool, said the town’s redevelopment is guided by a Placemaking Plan, approved in October 2022, that covers a 10-year period.

Four key intervention areas, including George Street and Commerical Street, have been identified in the plan which aims to work with public and private partners and there is also support available to bring redundant buildings into use.

Commercial St, Pontypool. Picture: LDRS

Grants

A spokeswoman said: “As part of this comprehensive and coordinated approach to regeneration, officers are also working with numerous property owners to facilitate grants being made available to support the refurbishment and renovation of both residential and commercial vacant/underutilised properties in Pontypool town centre.”

Other support, including training and financial support, is available to existing and new start up businesses in the town centre.

New, viable and lawful uses for Pontypool’s many empty buildings may be the best solution yet to arrest a growing problem of cannabis factories.


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Richard Davies
Richard Davies
8 days ago

Cannabis should be legalised!

TJ Palmer
TJ Palmer
5 days ago

No one shall live more than 15 minutes from a ‘green’ space.

Shan Morgain
4 days ago

What a shame police resources can’t be directed to real policing instead. Things like assault, rape, theft, missing persons, traffic. Proper police work. These cannabis games make a lot of fuss, using our money to capture a couple of boys, the juniors who know nothing except their own pitiful situation. Legal cannabis would be a major economic boost, and a far better safer recreation than alcohol. Domestic violence, murders, unsafe driving, liver disease, heart attacks and strokes – none of this is driven by cannabis – compare alcohol.

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