Exclusive: ‘Legal red light zone’ here to stay in Leeds

The managed approach to Holbeck's red light zone will continue.
The managed approach to Holbeck's red light zone will continue.
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LEEDS’ legalised red light zone will be allowed to continue following a review by authorities, and despite the murder of a sex worker there, it was announced today.

The Holbeck scheme – thought to be a first in the country – allows street sex workers to operate in a designated area during certain hours without fear of arrest.

Daria Pionko was murdered while working in Holbeck.

Daria Pionko was murdered while working in Holbeck.

Its future had been thrown into doubt by the murder of sex worker Daria Pionko in December.

But the Safer Leeds body today announced the scheme would stay in place, on the provision that some changes be made to the way it is run.

Feedback from residents and businesses showed the idea remained unpopular with some, with about a third of respondents saying they wanted it scrapped.

However, the majority thought it should be continued in its current form or with some changes made.

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

Safer Leeds

Safer Leeds, which brings together Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Police and other partners, said it had learnt “valuable lessons” from the review and public consultation.

A spokesman said: “We’ll be taking these lessons forward in a bid to provide a long-term solution to sex work in the area, balancing the different needs of the community, businesses, sex workers, agencies and support teams.

“We’ve listened closely to the range of strong views expressed on what is undoubtedly an extremely complex issue and acknowledge that some things worked, while others didn’t.”

The review was announced in February following national media attention in the wake of Ms Pionko’s murder.

The managed approach allows sex workers to operate without fear of arrest between set hours.

The managed approach allows sex workers to operate without fear of arrest between set hours.

A Polish sex worker who lived in the city, 21-year-old Ms Pionko was killed on December 22 last year.

Her killer, 24-year-old Lewis Pierre, of Meanwood, was found guilty at trial earlier this month and given a life sentence with a minimum of 22 years in prison.

The murder put the scheme, which had been operating for more than a year, under intense scrutiny.

Some reports wrongly created the impression that prostitutes were actively encouraged to work there or that it was safe for them to do so.

They also raised much wider awareness of the scheme, with the side effect that more sex workers were drawn to the area.

The spokesman said: “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.

“There is an ongoing commitment to the community with the regeneration of Holbeck, with significant improvements taking place in both residential and business areas. This has not changed.”

Critics argued that Ms Pionko’s murder meant the scheme had failed to keep sex workers from harm and should be abolished.

But the idea behind the scheme was to address some of the concerns of residents and businesses in an area that had long been known as a red light area.

Research had found that police action, including arrests, prosecutions and anti-social behaviour orders, was failing to reduce levels of prostitution.

Yesterday the executive board of Safer Leeds, which meets in private, talked through the review findings and agreed the scheme should continue in an amended form.

The Safer Leeds spokesman said: “Having lessened the problems experienced in residential areas and during the day, and to build on the significant improvement in the confidence of sex workers to report crimes and work with agencies and support services, attention will be focussed on providing increased support to vulnerable sex workers with complex needs, particularly addictions, to exit this work.

“Alongside this, targeted enforcement tactics will seek to tackle the number of people coming to the area because of the sex trade.”

The revised approach will seek to balance support for a core group of vulnerable sex workers, who will continue to be allowed to operate within the rules, with a targeted approach to enforcement focussing on those drawn into the area.

There will also be a “robust approach” to breaches in the rules and criminality.

A detailed plan is now to be drawn up, but it will include changes to operating hours and potential changes to the area covered to reflect the impact on local businesses.

Other aspects of the plan will involved the commissioning of support services to enable women to exit sex work over the medium term and the implementation of a tactical enforcement plan to counter those drawn into the area.

The decision was welcomed by Basis Yorkshire, a Leeds-based charity which has worked with female sex workers for more than 25 years.

It said evidence had show that enforcement or coercion tactics were more like to result in greater danger, with sex workers being fearful of authorities.

Chief executive Gemma Scire said: “The Managed Approach has allowed sex workers to no longer fear being arrested and has increased reporting of crimes to the police, which in the past year has led to four cases being taken to court for prosecution.

“In three of these cases, criminals were found guilty of serious, violent crimes, thereby protecting not only the women but the residents of the community of Leeds from further potential crimes they might have committed.”

She said the charity maintained that any criminalisation of sex work was wrong and it was pleased that Safer Leeds had recognised the need for additional support for sex workers in its review.