Leeds 'legal red light district' explained - how the managed approach works in Holbeck

It has been dubbed Britain's first legal red light zone - but what is the 'managed approach' to street sex work in Leeds?

The 'managed approach' to street sex work has been operating in Holbeck since October 2014.
The 'managed approach' to street sex work has been operating in Holbeck since October 2014.

Those behind the scheme have been reluctant in the past to discuss the finer details of the controversial scheme and how it operates on a day-to-day basis, but here's what we do know about it.

What is the 'managed approach'?

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The 'managed approach' allows street sex workers to ply for trade without fear of arrest, in a particular area of Leeds within agreed hours.

The 'managed approach' to street sex work has been operating in Holbeck since October 2014.

It aims to:

1. Reduce the problems caused by street prostitution to residents and businesses

2. Better engage with street sex workers to improve their safety and health, with a view to enabling them to exit this way of life

3. Reduce the prevalence of street sex working in Leeds

When did it begin?

The scheme was introduced as a 12-month pilot back in October 2014 by the community safety partnership Safer Leeds - a group which includes Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Police.

It attracted national media attention following the murder of sex worker Daria Pionko in December 2015. Originally from Poland, the 23-year-old lived in Leeds with her boyfriend and was a sex worker in the Holbeck area of the city.

How does it work?

The rules of the 'managed approach' are kept under review, with the current rules being:

1. No offences will be tolerated at any time within residential areas

2. No offences will be tolerated between 6am and 8pm

3. No offences will be tolerated outside businesses which are operating

4. Drug use, trafficking, organised crime and coercion will at no time be tolerated

5. Crime, public order and anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated

6. Indecency will not be tolerated at any time

When it began, Safer Leeds said 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.

Four police officers and PCOS were also assigned to a 'dedicated team' to oversee the sex workers in the Holbeck area from December 2017.

Why was it introduced?

The city's unofficial red light district had moved to the area around Water Lane over the years, and was creating problems for people living in Holbeck as it crept further into nearby residential areas.

Various approaches focused mainly on enforcement - either against sex workers or their clients - had been tried over the years, but had failed to make any significant impact on the level of street sex work in the city.

Those in favour of the 'managed approach' say it is helping support services and charities to engage with the often vulnerable women involved in sex work and has increased the reporting and successful prosecution of crimes committed against sex workers.

What support is available to street sex workers?

The charity Basis Yorkshire has a worker who supports a small number of sex workers with what are described as "highly complex needs and chaotic lives".

Other agencies including the Holbeck-based Joanna Project and alcohol and drug service Forward Leeds give support on a regular basis.

Further support is given by the city's commissioned sexual health service, Housing Leeds and West Yorkshire Police's designated sex worker liaison police officer.

Isn't it just a legal red light zone?

Safer Leeds says it is "categorically not a legal red light zone" and is actually about managing and lessening the impact of existing activity, not introducing something new.

It stresses that the strategy and partners involved do not have the power to change the law, nor to legalise offences related to sex work.

What do people living nearby think?

Following the murder of Daria Pionko, a review was conducted into the future of the 'managed approach'. Its findings were published in July 2016 when it was announced that the scheme would continue but with some small changes to the way it was run.A third of residents and businesses who responded back then wanted to see it scrapped, but the majority thought it should continue in some form.However, complaints from residents have steadily increased over the past year and prompted a series of street protests.

Will the scheme be allowed to continue?

Last month, Coun Amanda Carter submitted a white paper for debate by full council. It called on the council to prove it can either make the managed approach’ work or stop it all together.

During the debate, deputy council leader Debra Coupar said she agreed that the council should conduct another review but this should only happen once 'enhanced activity' now planned had been given time to take effect.

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn has also raised concerns with Safer Leeds about how the scheme is operating after meeting with residents in September.

When will the review happen?

Work is taking place at the moment, alongside residents' groups, to decide how the review will be carried out and what it should focus on.

Once the terms of the review have been agreed, an independent reviewer will be appointed.

This is not expected to take place until at least spring 2019.