Leeds red light zone report challenges councillors to 'step back' and listen to Holbeck residents amid Managed Approach tensions

Leeds decision-makers are being urged to step back and really listen to the views of Holbeck residents as they work out the next steps for managing the city's red light zone.

Thursday, 4th February 2021, 6:00 am

The debate surrounding the Managed Approach (MA) to on-street sex work first adopted in 2014 has often been heated, with frustrations reaching their height in the summer of 2018 when a series of protests were staged by those opposed to the scheme's continuation.

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It was the act of a community who felt the problems associated with existing on-street sex work had not improved as promised, but had actually grown worse as the place they called home had been reduced to nothing more than Britain's 'first legal red light zone' in the minds of outsiders.

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Dennis Kitchen, who chairs Holbeck Neighbourhood Forum, has been part of the Voice of Holbeck's Listening Well campaign. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Sex workers had been told that they could solicit in Holbeck without fear of arrest providing they only did so on designated industrial streets and within certain hours. The accounts set out in the newly-published Listening Well Report suggest those guidelines are too often broken though, with sex workers and kerb crawlers regularly seen in residential areas.

Paula Brown, a member of the Save our Eyes campaign group, said: "When we originally started complaining, we thought that people simply didn't know what was going on in Holbeck.

"It's almost been made to look like the problems that exist are in the industrial area - that's not the case. They're in the zone and well outside the zone. We want people to understand why residents are upset."

The group is part of the Voice of Holbeck, a coalition of community organisations that led the Listening Well campaign and commissioned Leeds Beckett University to compile a report about the views of more than 500 people who took part in the events and surveys it ran between February 2019 and February 2020.

Dennis Kitchen, who chairs Holbeck Neighbourhood Forum, said: "I do believe that councillors and politicians have a genuine concern for people and the area. The MA was set up by and is the policy of politicians and it's become their ideology. It's difficult for them to step back from it.

"Part of the Listening Well campaign is to give them the opportunity to step back."

He said nine community meetings held during the campaign were attended by councillors and others with strategic roles, with one ward councillor attending them all.

"To be honest, I think they were rather shocked," he said. "They didn't see the depth of the difficulties and the hurt people were going through."

Voice of Holbeck member John Leckenby, a resident of more than 45 years, said there had been people in the early days who wanted to see the sex workers driven out of the area.

He said: "Since then, I think because of the Listening Well campaign, people have come round to see that not all these women are involved in prostitution because they want to, but maybe they've been trapped, maybe they've been abused as children, all sorts of dreadful things, and they've been coerced into prostitution."

Mrs Brown added:"The sex industry portray us as being harsh and uncaring as if we want to just shut the whole thing down and take the services away - that's not correct. We're looking for that side to be beefed up. We want women to have more access to services."

The original intention had been to publish the Listening Well Report at the same time as an independent review commissioned by Leeds City Council, which last year concluded that the MA was "more effective" than any other approach to on-street sex work.

It examined how well the Safer Leeds community partnership was meeting the stated aims of reducing the prevalence of street-based sex working, lessening the problems it creates for residents and local businesses, and better engaging with the women involved to improve their safety and health.

The review acknowledged that some aspects of the scheme had not always been sufficiently resourced, but said the introduction of a dedicated reporting line, an increased policing resource and a more effective management structure had resulted in some improvements since the protests of 2018.

But the Listening Well Report's accounts of people feeling fearful of going out at night, witnessing sex acts in residential areas and children finding used condoms suggest that there is more to be done still.

Claire Bentley-Smith, a member of Save our Eyes, recently moved away from Beeston due to the issues of on-street sex workers operating near her family home. She worries that regeneration now taking place in the industrial streets where the MA operates means those soliciting or seeking sex will move be driven even further into residential areas.

"As the South Bank development blossoms over the next four years, what is the plan for where street prostitution is going to go?" she asked. "It seems like there's a reluctance to come up with a long-term plan.

"We were frustrated with the independent review that they didn't really canvas the businesses and the community enough to take into account the impact on us."

Improving community engagement was among the recommendations set out in the review and the council accepts this must be addressed.

A spokesperson said: "We have been working very closely with Voice of Holbeck over the last few years and want to enhance our reach locally, acknowledging there are a range of different views on the response to street sex work and Holbeck-based networks and groups who have not been engaged as well as we would like."

But those involved with Voice of Holbeck suggested this week that the council had stepped back from engaging with its members after they supplied a draft copy of the Listening Well Report to all 99 city councillors ahead of a full council debate on the MA last November.

Sir John Townsley, chief executive of the Gorse Academies Trust, said: "What is most regrettable is that key individuals at Safer Leeds and Leeds City Council no longer wish to engage with the Voice of Holbeck who commissioned this landmark report.

"As the leading community group that represents all residents, including many of our students, it is imperative that they continue to have an active role in the developing conversation around the Managed Approach."

Ms Bentley-Smith added: "We felt that it was really important for the councillors to have confidential access to the draft just so they could understand and appreciate the community view within the debate and the decision they were making.

"We didn't mean to upset the decision-makers by doing that and we regret that they feel there has been a breach of trust. I think it's fair to say we also felt our trust had been breached as the decisions-makers omitted us from the launch of the independent review. There's been misunderstanding and disappointment on both sides."

Responding to suggestions of a breakdown in communication between the two sides, the council told the YEP that Listening Well events had already helped to shape its work.

It is currently assessing the independent review recommendations and proposes to set out its position on the independent review's recommendations in the "near future".

A spokesperson said: "Whilst all of the details have yet to be finalised, what we can say at this stage is that we do expect further changes will be made to different facets of our strategic and operational approach. This includes how we will be engaging with residents, and we have already started work on this process."

Coun Debra Coupar, Leeds City Council’s executive member with responsibility for Safer Leeds, added: “I would like to reassure the local residents and all stakeholders in Holbeck that we remain absolutely committed to listening, learning and engaging directly with them regarding all aspects of the Managed Approach and how it develops moving forwards."

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