Campaigners claim Managed Approach scrapping could lead to ‘an increase in such activities’, while others welcome the news

Campaigners are divided over Leeds City Council plans to scrap the Managed Approach to on-street sex work that earned Holbeck the unwelcome reputation of being the country’s “first legal red light zone”.

The plans, announced on Tuesday afternoon, mean street sex work would be re-criminalised after more than six years of it being allowed to take place in certain non-residential streets and within certain hours.

Those opposed to this model, including a local headteacher, have hailed the decision, claiming the introduction of the scheme had “blighted the lives” of those living in Holbeck.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But supporters have claimed the decision could make communities and sex workers even more unsafe – and risk driving some to a life of crime.

Campaigners both for and against the zone have had their say.

Sir John Townsley, chief executive of The Gorse Academies Trust, which runs a school near the area in question, said: “This is an important moment for the community of Holbeck.

“The Managed Approach was a flawed policy that had significant detrimental consequences on the community of Holbeck.

“The Leeds city community now needs to see a robust exit strategy from Safer Leeds which sets out how they are going to ensure that prostitution in the area is policed effectively. Sex worker activity has spread outside of the Managed Approach and, during lockdown, has blighted the lives of those living on residential streets in Holbeck.

“Until we see an effective exit strategy being put into action, we still consider there to be safeguarding concerns for children living and commuting through the area.”

A joint-statement from opposition campaign groups Save Our Eyes and Voice of Holbeck added: “We believe the managed approach policy was introduced in good faith and had worthwhile aims. However, as it progressed, by 2017 it became clear that there were major failings and that the women it was intended to help could not respect either the operational area or the operational hours.

“This led to a huge detrimental impact on the residents living nearby; whose streets were taken over by prostitution and kerb-crawling in addition to the allocated streets.

“We have been repeatedly told by MA supporters that ‘it wouldn’t be safe’ for the zone to be closed or for kerb-crawlers or punters to be targeted. Yet the pandemic has proven that it is safe and effective to offer prostituted women exit services while clamping down on demand by targeting the men who prey on them.

“It’s been wonderful to hear of the improvements in women’s and residents’ lives during the pandemic. In recent weeks activity has increased again and this must be tackled.”

But not everybody is happy with the news.

Basis Yorkshire, an organisation which provides support for sex workers in the region, has said it is “very disappointed” with the decision as it warned it could make some sex workers even more unsafe.

Moya Woolven, the chief executive of Basis Yorkshire, said: “We are very disappointed with the council’s decision to step away from what has been a pioneering and compassionate approach to on street sex work up to this point.”

She added that while the extra support during the pandemic has enabled some women to address some of the issues that led them into on-street sex work, this was “not the case for all” and some were working in unsafe environments instead.

Ms Woolven said: “The closure has also left women feeling unable to report crimes against them for fear of the consequences of breaking Covid restrictions. The lack of reporting ultimately has city-wide consequences, with perpetrators of crimes against women not being prosecuted.

“It is very likely that for some women issues around poverty or other driving factors will remain or even increase post-Covid and potentially drive women to begin sex work, as a way of topping up benefits or poorly paid work.

“Any use of legal powers against those seeking to purchase sex outside of residential areas will prevent sex workers from being able to earn any additional income and could have the effect that they turn to acquisitive crime instead, such as shoplifting, which risks criminalisation and further reduces their chances of employment. It would also make women more vulnerable to exploitation and violence.”

The council stated it would continue its package of support to help women out of sex work, which Basis says it welcomes, but warned the problem had no quick fix.

Ms Woolven added: “We recognise that some members of the community are affected by on-street sex work in residential areas and the Managed Approach was designed to address this; we are concerned that this decision may lead to an increase of such activities.

“We will continue our vital campaign work to end stigma against sex workers including the demand to end criminalization of buying and selling sex.”

Basis said it would continue its support for sex workers alongside the Joanna Project, and would produce evidence about the impact of the closure of the Managed Approach area before the end of the year.

Plans to end the Managed Approach will go before members of Leeds City Council’s Executive Board on Wednesday June 23.