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‘Don’t abandon Leeds managed red light zone’

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Holbeck’s managed street sex work zone in Leeds has once again been thrust into the national spotlight.

Its chief architect, Councillor Mark Dobson, recently highlighted that failures to address the concerns of local residents could force a rethink of the whole approach. Many of these concerns are valid, but it would be a grave mistake to abandon the scheme. For all its problems, the managed zone plays a vital role in preventing violence against sex workers.

It’s worth remembering why this harm reduction approach was first adopted. Far from being an amnesty for violent men, improved relations between sex workers and police have encouraged working women to report violent crime to the authorities, and made it easier to prosecute the troublemakers. Basis Sex Work—a charity that has supported sex workers in the area for nearly 30 years—are able to provide significantly more condoms, STD tests, and other support services to sex workers as a result of the managed zone.

Recent economic research examining similar but better equipped areas in the Netherlands (known as ‘tippelzones’) found that citywide rates of sexual abuse and rape plummeted by a third following their introduction.

The past 14 years have seen over a dozen sex workers murdered in Leeds, as well as many others subjected to rape and other violent attacks. All but one of these murders occurred as police forces implemented various initiatives designed to crack down on the clients of sex workers. The exception was the tragic case of Daria Pionko, who was murdered in 2015: her attacker was brought to justice after a police investigation assisted by local sex workers.

Sadly, the failed “end demand” strategy is once again being touted as an alternative to the managed zone. The problems with this approach are clear.

While fines and arrests might deter some clients, working women still have to make rent or (in many cases) are compelled to fuel a drug addiction. They are left with no other choice than to lower prices, work longer hours, offer risker services, or seek a manager to find new clients.

Attempts to end demand also harm efforts to combat sex trafficking by making sex workers less likely to cooperate with police. The local knowledge of sex workers can play a key role in uncovering cases of exploitation and coercion where they exist.

Holbeck residents and stakeholders expressed their concerns at a public meeting held in recent months but there was no “crisis meeting” held by the council and others this week as some outlets reported.

One of the most highlighted issues with the managed zone is the impact of litter (such as condoms and needles) and public sex on the lives of locals.

Despite the fact that sex workers are only allowed to work in the area between 8pm and 6am, there are reports of these restrictions being ignored. The council has increased spending on cleaning and created a dedicated policing team in response to these problem, but there is still more to be done.

Holbeck shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Well-intentioned but misguided calls to return to “end demand” approaches will make vulnerable women less safe. Abandoning the managed zone will simply pass the parcel onto residents in other areas of Leeds as sex workers are displaced. Holbeck’s approach isn’t perfect, but we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Sex workers’ lives depend on it.

Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute, Britain’s leading neoliberal think-tank.