A ground-breaking “managed area” for street prostitution in Leeds has been made permanent after a 12-month pilot – despite the alleged murder of a sex worker.
The controversial scheme, which allows sex workers to ply their trade in a designated part of Holbeck from 7pm to 7am, will continue indefinitely.
City chiefs are now considering how the scheme could be modified, including a recommendation that the hours women are allowed to work are extended.
The news comes less than three weeks after 21-year-old Daria Pionko was found with fatal injuries on Springwell Road, within the managed area.
A 24-year-old man is awaiting trial for her murder.
Coun Mark Dobson, Leeds City Council’s executive member for Safer Leeds, said the death of Miss Pionko was a “tragedy” but that the managed area was needed to try to protect sex workers.
“Sex work remains – as last month proved – an extremely dangerous and fraught occupation. But it’s incumbent on us to make it as safe as possible.”Mark Dobson, Leeds City Council
He said: “I accept that there are people who will always have a moral objection to the issue of prostitution. I’m of the opinion that it is an industry that’s as old as time and it isn’t going to stop and, as a city that is responsible and cares about the people who live here – including the women who work in this industry – we have had to take a pragmatic approach to keep them safe.
“The managed area isn’t a universal cure-all. Sex work remains – as last month proved – an extremely dangerous and fraught occupation. But it’s incumbent on us to make it as safe as possible.”
The managed area – thought to be the first of its kind in the country – was established in October 2014. It came after research found that police action, including arrests, prosecutions and anti-social behaviour orders, was failing to reduce levels of prostitution or appease residents who were unhappy about sex workers looking for business in their neighbourhoods.
Under the scheme, the women are allowed to work without fear of arrest on certain streets during the designated hours as long as they abide by certain rules. A female police officer has been assigned specifically to interact with them.
Superintendent Sam Millar, who heads the Safer Leeds community safety partnership, said: “Our job is to keep people safe and that applies when people put themselves in risky situations.
“Sex work is high risk and that is not something that we should ignore. Having gone through years and years of enforcement, which hasn’t achieved the outcomes of breaking the cycle of sex work, we wanted to do something different which might help us better achieve those outcomes, to be brave and take some risks.”
According to the council, since the area was set up, complaints from residents have fallen. Area community safety co-ordinater Zahid Butt said: “For 10 to 15 years this issue dominated residents’ meetings. It doesn’t do that in the same way now.”
Police say that the women are much more likely to talk to officers and report crimes committed against them.
Last year two men were jailed for separate offences of raping sex workers in cases which the police say benefited from a new level of trust between them and the women involved.
Leeds University researcher Dr Teela Sanders, who carried out an evaluation of the scheme after the 12-month pilot, said it was “brave and innovative” of civic leaders to introduce the managed area.
“Lots of other police forces and agencies have expressed an interest in transferring and adapting the managed area in other parts of the country,” she said.
She said the pilot had been a “success” as a starting point but that more work needed to be done to ensure the safety of women working in the area.
Among the recommendations she has made are that women are allowed to start work earlier or that they have use of a “daytime space” away from businesses.
She has also called for better CCTV and street lighting.
Her review, carried out before the death of Miss Pionko, who was from Poland, also raised concerns that migrant sex workers were particularly at risk.
Rosie Campbell, who used to run the sex workers’ support charity Basis and is now involved in academic research, said protecting sex workers was in the interests of wider society.
She said: “I believe the people of Leeds are fair people.
“They want to live in safe communities and safety has always been at the heart of this project.
“For the wider community, history tells us that those offenders who target sex workers may target other members of the community. It’s in all of our interests to take those men off the streets.”
Coun Dobson added: “Leeds is only as strong as the most vulnerable people in it. We pride ourselves on being a city that’s a huge economic driver, on big projects, but we are also a compassionate city and the way we deal with all members of our community is important. The people involved in this work are among the most vulnerable imaginable and we have to keep making sure that we do our best for them.”
Mixed views from businesses
According to the evaluation carried out by Dr Teela Sanders, businesses within the managed area “broadly support” the scheme.
Leeds City Council said it had increased street cleaning patrols in response to complaints from employers about litter associated with the sex trade.
But Ian Staines, who runs Fresco interiors on Springwell Court, criticised the scheme.He said: “I would love to know which businesses are supportive of this, because no-one I speak to is.
“The council and police seem to think that if you shout loudly enough about it being a success then that makes it true.
“As a local business, I certainly don’t feel it’s a success - my car park is still full of condoms, it’s a bad image for customers coming here and it feels unsafe for staff.
“I know the police and the council don’t have the power, but they should legalise prostitution and then [Chancellor] George Osborne can start making some tax from it.”
On the other hand, Alan Lane, director of the Slung Low theatre company, based on Bath Road, said he was “broadly positive” about the managed area.
He said: “Anything that makes Holbeck safer and more pleasant for residents and those of us that have a business there is a good thing.
“Our understanding is that the managed area has done that.
“Our priority has always been the safety and comfort of our audience and staff and the general quality of living in Holbeck and it’s my opinion that the managed area is better than the alternative. If anyone has any better suggestions I’m open to that.
“We have always been aware that we’re in an area of prostitution. What we have seen in the last 12 months is a better relationship with the police.”
‘It could happen to any of us’
The floral tributes remain at the spot where Daria Pionko was killed.
One heartfelt message reads: “Thinking of you and offering apologies that Leeds could not keep you safe.”
Another sex worker, Catherine – not her real name – has been involved in the trade in Leeds on and off for the last 15 years.
She said the tragedy had left her and other women profoundly shocked.
“The first time I came to work after it happened it was frightening – I felt really on edge,” she said. “It’s on your mind that you could be the next one, it could happen to any of us.”
But the 40-year-old, from south Leeds, said the managed area had improved relationships with police.
She said: “In the past you were against the police. If you saw a police car you would hide and you didn’t feel safe.
“More often that not you would get police giving you a hard time. Now they leave us alone, but what’s quite endearing is that they will pull up and ask you if you’re all right.
“I tell my punters that we’re in a managed area and that the police are around looking out for us – that makes a difference.”
Catherine, who has children, said there were still times when sex workers had to deal with public abuse. “You get cars full of lads driving past and throwing bottles and stuff at you and abusing you. They don’t know anything about us,” she said.
“I would like to think that one day I’ll get out of it. The problem is that the money is good – it’s difficult to leave it behind.”