Sex in the city: Is Leeds ‘managed approach’ an innovation?

Taylor Austin Little, of charity Basis, Dr Kate Brown, of York University, Chief Insp Chris Brown and Carolyn Henham, of Basis, in Holbeck in July 2015 when the scheme was first made public. Picture: Nigel Roddis
Taylor Austin Little, of charity Basis, Dr Kate Brown, of York University, Chief Insp Chris Brown and Carolyn Henham, of Basis, in Holbeck in July 2015 when the scheme was first made public. Picture: Nigel Roddis

An Innovative way to address the issue of street prostitution or just plain wrong?

The idea of letting sex workers in Leeds to ply their trade without fear of arrest has been nothing if not controversial.

Daria Pionko, who was killed in December 2015.

Daria Pionko, who was killed in December 2015.

As our series continues, we look at how the ‘managed approach’ has developed since it was quietly introduced almost three years ago.

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

Holbeck had had an unwanted association with prostitution for several years, during which the authorities accept they struggled to deal with the issue.

A 2013 study by Dr Kate Brown, a researcher from York University, found that the policy of police enforcement – using the law against sex workers – had failed to reduce prostitution or associated problems.

And by October 2014, Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Police and the other agencies which make up Safer Leeds had decided to conduct a pilot.

Sex workers would be allowed to operate freely between the hours of 7pm and 7am within a specified series of streets, as long as they followed the rules.

They included not working outside the agreed times and locations, not leaving used condoms or syringes behind, and not using drugs in the street.

A ‘three strikes’ policy meant rule-breakers would get a warning for a first breach, a caution for a second and be arrested for a third infringement.

There had been consultation with residents and businesses beforehand, but it was only in the summer of 2015 that Safer Leeds and others began to talk more openly about the pilot.

By then, they had begun to gather evidence of how it was working and the feeling was that it had been successful.

Coun Mark Dobson, then the council’s executive member for Safer Leeds, said: “The evidence is clearly suggesting the pilot is worthy of continuation.”

Residents’ complaints were said to have fallen by a third and crimes against sex workers were about 10 times more likely to be reported to police.

Not everyone was convinced though, as businesses complained about littering and the police were criticised for failing to enforce the law.

READ MORE: How murder of sex worker put Leeds in headlines as home of first ‘legal’ red light zone

Safer Leeds decided to see the pilot through before more formal consultation and a review to decide the scheme’s fate.

But the whole approach was thrown into doubt with the murder of sex worker Daria Pionko in December 2015.

While proceedings against her killer continued, Safer Leeds studied the results of the pilot and consultation.

In July last year, they announced that the approach would continue but with some changes to the way it was run.

A third of residents and businesses who responded had wanted to see it scrapped, but the majority thought it should continue in some form.

Explaining the decision, a Safer Leeds spokesman said problems experienced in residential areas had been reduced and the likelihood of sex workers reporting crimes and engaging with support services had improved significantly.

He said more attention would now be given to support for vulnerable women who wanted to leave sex work and enforcement against people coming to the area because of the sex trade.

Although Safer Leeds has been reluctant to talk about changes made since then, the YEP understands operating hours were reduced to 8pm to 6am following the review.

A more robust approach to criminality was also promised and police figures, secured through a Freedom of Information request, reveal an increase in charges for soliciting.

There were two charges for the offence in Beeston and Holbeck in 2012, rising to five in the same area in 2016.

Although the approach officially remains under “continuous review”, it would appear that it is here to stay.

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

A road traffic sign is in front of the Union Jack and the European Union flag hanging outside Europe House in Smith Square, London.  Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

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