What happened when Leeds hit headlines as home of first ‘legal’ red light zone

Daria Pionko, who was killed in Holbeck in December 2015.
Daria Pionko, who was killed in Holbeck in December 2015.

The managed approach adopted in Leeds came under intense media scrutiny in the weeks following the murder of sex worker Daria Pionko.

National media reported that prostitution had been legalised, giving readers the impression that Holbeck was now heading in the direction of the red light zone in Amsterdam.

Flowers left at the memorial service for Daria Pionko. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Flowers left at the memorial service for Daria Pionko. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Articles with headlines such as “Devastating truth about Britain’s first ‘legal’ red light district” and “Sex on the street for £30: Mum-of-two working as a prostitute takes us inside Britain’s legal red light district” appeared in print and online.

Almost overnight, Leeds became the city that had made it legal for women to sell sex and plenty of people were quick to pass judgement.

READ MORE: Sex in the city – Leeds residents on life near ‘legal’ red light zone

A number of reports levelled criticism at the stated aims of the approach, arguing Ms Pionko’s murder was proof that the scheme had been a failure.

There is no denying the adverse impact on specific businesses, exacerbated by the intense media spotlight.

Safer Leeds spokesman

The 21-year-old from Poland worked in the streets where the managed approach applied and it was there that she was attacked on December 22, 2015.

It would later emerge at trial that her killer – now serving a life sentence with a minimum of 22 years in prison – had posed as a client in order to get Ms Pionko somewhere secluded. When she tried to stop him stealing her bag and the money inside, she was subjected to a brutal assault and sustained the injuries that would prove to be fatal.

Some reports wrongly created the impression that prostitution was actively encouraged in Holbeck or sex workers had been promised it was safe there.

The only assurance they had been given was that if they followed the rules, they were not at risk of arrest for soliciting.

Safer Leeds said awareness generated by national media attention had attracted more sex workers to Holbeck.

Safer Leeds said awareness generated by national media attention had attracted more sex workers to Holbeck.

READ MORE: What Safer Leeds says now about city’s ‘legal’ red light zone

When Safer Leeds published its review last summer, a spokesman pointed to the negative impact of the coverage on the lives of the sex workers, residents and businesses.

The much wider awareness of the managed approach had also had the side effect of drawing more sex workers there.

The spokesman said at the time: “There is no denying the adverse impact on specific businesses, exacerbated by the intense media spotlight. We will work with them to make changes which lessen the impact.”

Officials in Newport, London and Bradford had previously been said to be considering such adopting a similar managed approach, based on the success of the scheme.

And weeks before Ms Pionko’s murder, local media in Teesside reported that Cleveland Police were “closely monitoring” progress in Leeds.

It will surprise few to see that none appear to have followed in the city’s footsteps – or if they have, they have no intention of admitting it publicly.

PIC: James Hardisty

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