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

A picture taken by a resident who lives near the area covered by the 'managed approach'.
A picture taken by a resident who lives near the area covered by the 'managed approach'.

Almost three years ago, council and police bosses in Leeds launched what was thought to be the country’s first ‘legal’ red light zone.

If sex workers followed the rules, they could openly ply for trade on certain streets without fear of arrest.

But this ‘managed approach’ has not been without its problems, as the YEP found when it spoke to local residents for the first in a three-part series.

A CAR pulls up in a residential street in south Leeds in the early hours but the occupants do not notice the CCTV camera on the house nearby.

It captures a man climbing out of the driver’s seat, before a woman gets out of the back and totters on her high heels past the house and into the neighbouring woodland with him.

Around 20 minutes later, they emerge from the darkness and drive away in the car.

The next morning a mum told about the incident goes to check the woods, where her children like to play, and finds used needles and condoms.

This, according to residents in Beeston and Holbeck, is typical of life near the area where the city council and police have adopted a ‘managed approach’ to street sex work since 2014.

READ MORE: Pictures and video – The residents’ view on spread of ‘legal’ red light area in Leeds

While it is still technically illegal to solicit in the parts of Holbeck where the managed approach applies, sex workers can do so in these largely industrial streets without fear of arrest if they stick to the rules around location and hours.

The argument in favour goes that sex workers have always operated on the city’s streets, but those involved are more likely to access support services and report violent crimes against them to police because of this approach.

And while many residents are understanding of the principle and the desire to help vulnerable women, it is the way things are working out in practice that they are finding much harder to accept.

Amanda Sullivan, 32, is part of Save Our Eyes – a Facebook group which evolved from the popular Save Our Beeston page, where a number of people had voiced concern about the ‘creep’ of the managed approach area into residential streets.

“People who go to work at 4am are getting approached outside their homes,” she said. “There’s another resident who lives near Holbeck Cemetery and he’s had to start chaining up the gates at night.”

Some have complained of being woken by the noise of cars and the women shouting, others are more concerned by the physical evidence left lying in ginnels, the cemetery and woodlands for anyone to find.

Then there’s the scantily clad women near the local shop and the church, and the awkward questions from children who should not be old enough to be asking what ‘prostitute’ means.

Another group member, who did not want to be named, said: “It’s not about the managed zone. We appreciate why that’s there. It’s more that they’re doing it in residential areas.”

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

The biggest frustration, it seems, is the feeling residents have that action is not being taken when the rules of the managed approach are flouted.

The police have taken the unusual step of providing a dedicated mobile phone number for people to ring when there are issues locally, although even this is not without problems.

Mrs Sullivan, 32, said: “You can ring the mobile number up to midnight, but most of the incidents are happening outside those hours. We can report and report, and there’s nothing being done.”

This was just one of the talking points when representatives of Save Our Eyes met with West Yorkshire Police last week.

They shared feedback from a survey of residents which found many felt it was a waste of time to try report issues to police.

“Everybody is saying that when they ring the mobile number, it’s either switched off or nobody answers,” the group member said.

“The 101 number is the only other alternative. On a night, it happens so much and so often that you’d never be off the phone.”

He said the meeting with police had been fairly productive, but it had left him feeling that the officers’ hands were tied in some respects.

“I don’t think they had any idea how bad it was,” he said. “The police weren’t unfair and they did accept what we were saying.

“The main problem for us is how to report it because they’ve got to be there to see it. It’s something that happens so quickly and they’re never going to catch them.”

West Yorkshire Police chose not to comment on the discussions held with the group.