Julie Bindel

So long to Leeds’s appalling prostitution zone

So long to Leeds's appalling prostitution zone
(Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)
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Goodbye and good riddance to the Leeds ‘Managed Zone’ in which punters were given amnesty to buy the most disenfranchised and desperate women.

Following a seven-year campaign by feminists, residents and some of the women who had previously been prostituted in the zone, this week Leeds City Council announced that the zone will not be re-opening following the end of the Covid lockdown.

The zone originated following pressure on the police and council to tackle street prostitution in the centre of Leeds. Residents and workers, sick of stepping over used condoms and fending off harassment from kerb crawlers, complained so regularly that the zone was set up by way of appeasement.

Feminists had long demanded that the police stop arresting the women — it was unjust as well as counter-productive. All that happened was that the courts would impose a fine. That then led to the revolving door situation of the financially desperate women going straight back into prostitution in order to earn the money to pay their fines.

But the council and West Yorkshire Police could have opted to support the women and deter punters instead of containing the problem. Money could have been filtered into exiting and drug rehabilitation services. Money could also have been directed towards public awareness campaigns aimed at punters informing them that kerb crawling and soliciting women for the purposes of prostitution are criminal offences. Instead, the authorities chose to make it easier for pimps and punters to exploit the women, thereby abandoning those women to their lives of hell and making other residents feel unsafe.

Established in June 2014, the zone has been a disaster. Set up in Holbeck, an impoverished area of south Leeds, it was made permanent in January 2016 — weeks after the brutal murder of Daria Pionko, who was beaten to death in the zone by a punter.

In 2016, a woman operating within the zone was asked by a radio crew whether she now felt safe. She replied: 'No. Because once you’re in a car, police can’t do anything to help you anyway. We’ve got a managed area, but we haven’t got somewhere we can go and do it discreetly out of the way of everybody.'

Complaints from residents and businesses included being repeatedly woken at night; punters picking up women outside of the designated hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.; children being propositioned in the street; gardens being broken into; and locals being harassed by sex buyers.

In early 2020 I spoke to a woman in the zone who told me: 'Because [the men] can’t get arrested, they think they can do anything they like. I’ve been raped, and one man urinated on me once and then took a photo.' With the first year of the ‘managed approach’, figures released by police show complaints of rape almost trebled and have remained significantly higher than before.

Sarah Field is a Leeds city councillor who defected from Labour in 2017 to the Garforth and Swillington Independent party in disgust at the leader’s continued support of the zone. She told me: 

I’m pleased that the Leeds Labour administration have finally conceded that the so called ‘managed approach’ to street prostitution needed to go. For years, they refused to listen to fellow councillors, feminists and residents who tirelessly campaigned to end this sanctioning of modern slavery.

Critics of the zone have lobbied the council to properly fund managed exit strategies for prostituted women while operating a zero tolerance policy for the pimps and punters who fuel the demand. 'We need to recognise prostitution as male sexual violence and let that drive a different approach, based on the Nordic model,' says Field.

Leeds City Council has clung on to the hype produced by prostitution apologists since setting up the zone. An independent evaluation report by the University of Huddersfield, which was published last year, again hailed the zone as a success, despite it being clear that from the start that there had been significant problems regarding safety, policing and public order offences. It was obvious that many residents and business owners hated the zone, despite the positive spin.

The latest report concluded that researchers, 'did not identify any more effective interventions or ways of reducing the problems associated with on street sex work within the parameters of existing UK law'.

But I have a suggestion for a more effective intervention: do as Ipswich council and police did following the murders of five prostituted women in 2006 and send a message out to the citizens of Leeds that the abuse of women will not be tolerated. Let the women who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation understand that the money previously poured into managing this horrific social experiment will be earmarked for support and exiting programmes. No woman should have to endure abuse and degradation in order to feed herself and her children. The men of Leeds need to know the amnesty has ended.