TACKLING soaring electricity thefts across Barnsley - which has been largely blamed on cannabis-growing set-ups - has become a priority for police in the town following a surge in crime.

Since 2012, incidents where meters are tampered with or bypassed have risen by 75 per cent nationally - but local rates are much higher at 180 per cent.

Representing an all-time high, police in Barnsley have dismantled more than 30 cannabis farms in the last 12 months, which would have had a street value of more than £1m, and bosses have appealed to the public to be vigilant and report any suspicions they may have.

Electricity thefts are where meters are tampered with or bypassed to avoid paying for energy.

It can leave live wires exposed and will often involve bypassing fuse boxes, increasing the risk of appliances overheating or catching fire and death - and it’s said to be a common practice for cannabis cultivators due to plants needing round-the-clock, costly heat.

Recent operations follow raids on the vacant BrightHouse on Market Street and a premises on Princess Street, both in the town centre, and at Ardsley, Bolton-upon-Dearne and Goldthorpe, which saw officers recover more than 3,000 plants - half their typical annual amount.

Superintendent Paul Ferguson, local policing lead, said: “Tackling the ongoing issue of illegal drugs, including cannabis cultivation, is a priority at South Yorkshire Police.

“These cultivations are often led by organised criminals.

“We know they have a detrimental impact on our communities, through power outages and the exploitation of vulnerable people, as well as the fear and harm caused by these gangs.

“We would like to stress to the public the importance of reporting suspected cannabis grows and any associated potential energy theft to us, so we can stamp out this criminality.

“With enough information we can and do execute warrants to seize the grows and put those responsible before the courts.

“We’d also like to remind businesses that work out of large premises to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to us.

“We will continue to work closely with the community and partners to tackle these offences.

“If you are uncomfortable telling us about your suspicions directly, you can contact independent charity Crimestoppers 100 per cent anonymously.”

Police say its Cannabis Grow Aware scheme - which sees landlords and letting agents sign up to support police in the fight to tackle drug-related crime - has proven to be a help.

Participants commit to regular checks, and place posters and stickers in their properties, with a two-fold aim to deter tenants from growing cannabis while keeping an eye out for telltale signs and highlight landlords who may be turning a blind eye.

Police also confirmed they are working alongside social housing provider Berneslai Homes and vowed to take action on council tenants if they are found to be using properties to cultivate crops.

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council added: “The theft of electricity is a growing problem.

“It is a concerning crime as it can put people’s safety at risk and support the activities of serious organised crime.

“We know that energy theft holds a significant connection with illegal drugs, and in particular cannabis cultivation.

“It is important for businesses and commercial enterprises, particularly those who operate out of large or isolated premises, to remain vigilant around energy theft.”

* If you have any information about suspected drug crime in your community, you can report it to police on 101. You can also contact the independent charity Crimestoppers, anonymously, via their website crimestoppers-uk.org or by calling 0800 555 111.