Positive Leeds red light zone review says managed approach should continue

A “radical” approach to managing the red light district in Leeds should remain but must continue to evolve, an independent review has concluded.

Friday, 10th July 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 10th July 2020, 11:28 am

The University of Huddersfield team had been tasked last year with investigating how effective the city’s controversial Managed Approach (MA) was, amid questions from some councillors about whether it should be abandoned altogether.

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How the Managed Approach works and where in Holbeck it applies

The aims from the outset have been to reduce the prevalence of street-based sex working, lessen the problems it creates for residents and local businesses, and better engage with the women involved to improve their safety and health.

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The findings of an independent review into the Managed Approach to street sex work in Leeds have been published. Picture: Shutterstock

On the question of whether the approach should continue, the review concluded: “The MA was found to be more effective at reducing the impact of problems associated with on-street sex working than any other approach or model. There are currently no alternative models or approaches that promise to be more effective and which fit within existing UK law on sex working.

"The MA must continue to evolve and adapt when needed as it has done over the past six years.”

It has not been without its challenges, with residents staging regular protests in 2018 amid rising anger over littering and soliciting creeping into residential areas.

All this was heightened by intense national media interest in what was dubbed the country’s first ‘legal’ red light zone and the murder of sex worker Daria Pionko in 2015.

Review lead Professor Jason Roach said: “This was quite a new and radical idea at the time. It’s since become embedded in the national policing strategy on street sex work.”

In response to the vocal campaigning from unhappy residents, Safer Leeds has made a series of changes to way the approach is managed on a daily basis since mid-2018.

Prof Roach said: “There’s been the introduction of the dedicated call line for residents to report issues associated with on-street sex work, a dedicated policing team that’s fully resourced now and, since 2018, an effective strategic command and management structure in place.”

These steps appear to have gone a long way to addressing community concerns, with almost 70 per cent of the residents and businesses who contributed towards the review saying they believed the approach should remain but with some changes.

Prof Roach said nobody wanted to see the removal of support for the women, such as programmes run by Basis Yorkshire and the Joanna Project.

“The team were blown away about the empathy and sympathy people have for sex workers,” he said. “It was absolutely incredible.”

There was a recognition too that while the approach may not be ideal, the impact on the community would be worse if resources such as the dedicated policing team and enhanced street cleansing were to go.

The review found that sex workers, allied professionals and police “unequivocally” viewed the scheme as having improved health and safety of the sex workers.

Years of mistrust of authorities has been replaced with a new willingness among street sex workers in Holbeck to report crimes committed against them.

Safer Leeds data shows the reporting of crimes involving violence towards street sex workers had more than doubled since the approach began.

One woman told the review: “Men used to get [away] with all the time attacking us girls, they used to get away with it, they used to get away with raping you, robbing you, they got away with it... but now it’s banged up, prison. You can’t do that.”

Welcoming the review's conclusion that MA should remain but evolve, Basis chief executive Gemma Scire said: “Basis are proud to have called for and enabled the full and active participation of street sex working women as equal citizens of Leeds, with involvement throughout the process to have their voices heard.”

A major frustration for residents in the past has been the sex and drug-related litter left behind, despite the MA rules prohibiting it.

The review found there have been significant improvements in the past two years, with more than one interviewee describing Holbeck as “the cleanest area in the City of Leeds”.

It noted council’s Cleansing Team claims to have an average response rate of six minutes to reports by residents and businesses finding sex and drugs paraphernalia.

Council data showed that things appeared to improve significantly in January to July 2019, with less sex litter recovered from residential areas.

Prof Roach said: “Street cleansing were the heroes of this. Everybody loved the street cleansing team.”

Safer Leeds estimated the extra cost of MA to be roughly £200,000 per year and the review recommended that “at least this level of investment and organisational of support” was necessary to achieve and sustain the progress made.

This could prove challenging when the council has issued warnings about £200m financial blackhole resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, while other public and third sector funding sources are also likely to come under financial pressure.

James Rogers, the council's director of communities and environment, said the local authority was optimistic about ongoing funding talks with the Government, adding: "Quite clearly, we've invested in the MA up to now and we see it as a priority for the future."

Other recommendations from the review included increasing community involvement in the management structure and creating an independently-chaired group to consider issues such as how development in the area might impact upon the scheme.

The review findings are due to be considered by city council’s executive board on July 20.

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