'I was raped in the street in Holbeck' - the women living around Leeds' Managed Approach zone speak out

As part of an ongoing series investigating women's safety in Leeds, reporter Susie Beever looks at what it's like as a woman living around the city's red light area

Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 8:20 am

Managed Approach. To anyone who lives outside Leeds, these two words sound more like something you hear in a corporate meeting than a newspaper headline.

But to everyone in the city, they mean something entirely different.

The introduction of a managed zone in Holbeck where sex workers could carry out their trade without reprisal was a move which divided Leeds and generated national debate.

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A woman living in Holbeck has told the Yorkshire Evening Post how she was raped by a man while she was out on a walk, but felt she shouldn't report it to the police. Picture posed by model

Dubbed by some as the UK's first 'legal' red light area, the joint operation between Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Police was created to better engage with sex workers and reduce the risks of crime and anti-social behaviour.

But rather than protected, many of the area's female residents feel at risk, preyed upon and "constantly scrutinised".

Holbeck has one of the highest recorded crime rates in the entire Leeds South policing ward.

There were 161 crimes reported in the area in September alone, of which 51 were classed as violent or sexual offences.

Women living around Holbeck's Managed Approach area say they have been kerb crawled and shouted at by men believing them to be sex workers

The council's safeguarding board Safer Leeds meanwhile is aware of 144 women who are known sex workers operating in the Managed Approach zone.

Kelly* was raped by a man while out on a morning walk in Holbeck over the summer.

She isn't a sex worker, but said she has never reported the attack as she feared the police would assume that she was.

"I usually go for walks at different times because I can't sleep", she said, in an interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Women in Holbck say they feel unsafe walking around and are being constantly stared at and judged, regardless of whether they are or aren't a sex worker

"I was sitting on a wall and was feeling a bit overwhelmed with thoughts. It must have been about five minutes I was sitting there, and this scruffy bloke with a carrier bag came and sat beside me asking if I have a light.

"I usually do so I searched for one but my bag was to the side of me so I had to turn my back to him. He leaned over and before I knew it his hand was down my top and he was groping me, pushing me down the wall area. Then he put his hands down my trousers and started touching me."

Kelly said the man assaulted her before raping her, then walked off.

"I just blanked. I don't even know how long it lasted. I just froze. I don't even remember his face, just him walking away."

Leeds City Council released this map earlier this year detailing the exact boundaries of Holbeck's Managed Approach, following a Freedom of Information request from the Yorkshire Evening Post

Already a victim of historic abuse, Kelly suffers with multiple mental health issues and says the attack triggered traumatic memories from her childhood.

"I didn't report it", she added.

"I learned from a young age that when I tried to report things I was failed by the system.

"And with the fact of the area it happened in, if it had gone to trial he would have got away with it just by saying, 'I thought she was a prostitute'."

Superintendent Jackie Marsh, from Safer Leeds, said: "It's extremely concerning to hear someone saying that they have been victim of a serious sexual assault by a stranger but have not reported it to the police.

"Regardless of whatever their past experiences are, we would encourage them to report this incident to us immediately so that we can investigate it as a priority.

Female residents in Holbeck staging a protest in Autumn 2018 calling for an end to the Managed Approach, which they say only encourages sex work and creates more risks to their safety

"We need their account of the incident so we can carry out all possible enquiries to identify the offender and do everything we can to bring them to justice and stop them from committing any further offences.

"We always treat offences such as this very seriously and have specialist detectives who investigate such crimes and can offer the necessary support to victims throughout the investigation and court process.

"Our investigations into serious sexual offences of this nature regularly result in the offenders being identified, arrested, charged and convicted in court, and we would ask this person to give us the opportunity to do that, not just for them as a victim but also in the interests of the wider community."

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Many other women who, like Kelly, live in the areas surrounding Holbeck's Managed Approach zone, say they have been kerb-crawled, had things shouted at them by passing drivers and felt generally unsafe.

Claire Bentley-Smith is a mum living on the edge of Beeston, just a stone's throw from the zone, and often has to walk through on her way to meetings for work.

"Many women who are residents in Holbeck live in fear", she said. "As a woman, you are constantly scrutinised.

"Not just by punters who kerb-crawl you, but by anyone driving past and looking at women to work out if they're a prostitute or not. We call it the Holbeck stare.

"I was walking my dog on Trent Street recently and a man in a white van pulled up and started talking to me about my dog. He asked if I was working that day and I said yes as I am self-employed.

"I could tell he was looking at me to work me out, so I just bit the bullet and said, 'why, are you looking for business?' He replied asking if I knew somewhere we could go and that's when I told him, 'I'm not a sex worker, I'm a resident and you shouldn't be here."

In recent years, a group called Save Our Eyes has been set up which raises awareness of issues residents experience, from crime to the littering of condoms and needles.

Committee member Carol Lee said: "The Managed Approach was created to save police time and to make the crime figures look better. The women are now allowed to solicit for business and punters are allowed to drive around and choose which piece of flesh they fancy that night without fear of arrest.

"Leeds is a paradise for punters, drug pushers and pimps who prey on vulnerable prostituted women, all of whom have a sad story to tell which explains why they have ended up in such a dire situation.

"We need to provide funding for a rehabilitation centre and refuge for these women before we declare ourselves 'women friendly'."

Leeds City Council announced last month it was installing more CCTV cameras in the area which would mean round-the-clock monitoring of sex work and criminal activity.

Despite this, many women say extra surveillance provided little in the way of reassurance.

"The cameras just flush the men out", said Claire.

"They don't want their number plates to be caught on camera, so they change their routes and just find different corners to go to. All they do is disperse the activity, no one actually feels any safer."

Councillor Debra Coupar, executive council member for Safer Leeds, said: "We've made an ongoing commitment to listen very closely to the issues and concerns which have been raised regarding the Managed Approach."

“In the last year, we have made a number of strategic and operational changes to the Managed Approach having taken into account this feedback and what we have found through our day-to-day work. This information has proved to be a key factor in the introduction of a dedicated police team last December which every day are patrolling areas of the Managed Approach, and who will support the tackling of any issues that arise.

"We have also introduced a dedicated phone number where any issues can be reported. We would urge any person who has information or has been the victim of a serious crime to please contact the police immediately, so they can be investigated without delay.

"The CCTV cameras will provide additional confidence and reassurance to local residents and assist both the council and partners as part of our daily work through both the day and night to tackle any form of anti-social behaviour that occurs in the area.

"Already the introduction of CCTV has led to a first arrest relating to car crime in the area, which is extremely positive news."

*Names changed to protect the identity of victims of sexual assault

Councillor Debra Coupar (centre), from Safer Leeds, said Leeds City Council had implemented more services to help safeguard Holbeck's residents