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Inside England's First 'Legal' Prostitution Zone

A murder in the UK area where sex workers are allowed by police to operate has raised questions about the safety of Leed's pioneering scheme.

by Ryan Fletcher, Photos: Darren O'Brien/Meta4 Photos
Feb 11 2016, 6:21pm

"Sarah," a sex worker in Leeds' Holbeck district

Whatever way you look at it, initiatives to mitigate the dangers of on-street sex work are going to yield imperfect results—even when they're effective. Because for as long as sex work is criminalized, most meaningful efforts to change things for the better technically have to be made outside of the law.

So, in England, the West Yorkshire Police and Leeds City Council should be lauded for their pioneering scheme, set up in October of 2014, which allows sex workers to trade without fear of arrest on an industrial estate in Leeds's Holbeck district. The scheme has been credited with making sex workers more likely to report those who prey upon them to the police, and has reduced complaints from fed-up residents.

However, three weeks before the initiative was made permanent on January 11 this year, 21-year-old sex worker Daria Pionko was murdered within the zone, which operates between 7 PM and 7 AM and is managed by the authorities. A University of Leeds evaluation carried out before the murder stated that "the perceived decrease in police presence during operational hours is a concern and has contributed to sex workers not experiencing an increase in feeling safer." The report's author, Dr. Teela Sanders, made a number of recommendations, including calling for extra policing, better street lighting, CCTV, and number plate recognition.

A memorial to Dara Pionko

Although West Yorkshire Police is not in any way culpable for Ms. Pionko's death, the question remains whether or not policing for sex worker safety within the managed area has been neglected or mismanaged. With other local authorities considering the trailblazing scheme, it would be wise for their police forces to take note of the undoubtedly difficult lessons the managed area in Holbeck has to teach.

VICE submitted a Freedom of Information request on January 8 to the West Yorkshire Police, asking if Sanders's recommendations had been considered and inquiring about the perceived decrease in police numbers. On February 3 the request was delayed for a further 20 days to allow the police to decide whether or not it was in the public interest to release the information.

Despite the delay, there is evidence that the managed area has been skimped on. During a Leeds City Council meeting on October 14 last year—more than two months before Ms. Pionko's death on December 23—Holbeck Councillor Angela Gabriel spoke out about underfunding generally.

At the meeting, Gabriel said: "Progress has been made. But everybody decided that it was Holbeck's problem and it was going to stay in Holbeck. We have had no resources."

Gabriel declined repeated requests for an interview to discuss the issues she raised in more detail. Her reticence is reflective of the sensitivity of those involved in the managed area, which is being run under the Safer Leeds multiagency partnership and includes local sex worker charities.

In many ways the project has been an absolute success: Improved trust between sex workers and the police, due to a dedicated liaison officer, has led to an 80 percent increase in offenses and attacks being reported, with two rapists being jailed as a direct result of the scheme. The project's partners are all overwhelmingly supportive.

That said, when I spoke to a charity outreach worker—who wished to remain anonymous, saying it was not possible to comment openly because of the nature of the partnership—she said that despite "a huge amount of good will" between the partners, one of the underlying reasons for the lack of extra safety provisions was "because we're living in an age of austerity."

The industrial estate in Leeds's Holbeck district in which sex workers operate between 7 PM and 7 AM without fear of arrest.

In fact, by this March, Leeds City Council's budget will have been slashed by £180 million [$261 million]—a drop of more than 40 percent in five years. West Yorkshire Police are in a similar situation: Over 2016 and 2017, its budget will be reduced by more than 30 percent, with extra cuts scheduled for November.

In this situation, it's not impossible to envisage hard-pressed decision makers shrinking expenditure through the reduction of police numbers in the Holbeck zone, where the de-facto decriminalization of the area's ingrained sex industry presents the potential of freeing up the police resources previously used to curb it. Making the possibility of reduced policing more viable is the fact that many sex workers find traditional patrol methods obtrusive anyway.

"It's not good for business. I just want to do it and go home. I don't want to mess about with the police. One of the police says to me, 'You're not going to have any fun with that attitude,' and I said to myself, 'You're taking the piss—as if any of us are having fun down here anyway,'" said 24-year-old Jane (not her real name), who is a heroin addict and has been a street sex worker for two years.

Jane was waiting to be picked up from the managed area when I visited for a few hours in January, shortly after it was made permanent.

"If something bad happens I'll deal with it myself. I don't need to bother with the police. It's just a waste of time. I tell you exactly what it is: Girls want to come down here, get their money, go home, get their drugs, go to sleep, and do exactly the same the next day until they sort their life out," she said.

During my visit, police cars passed intermittently and a charity support van was parked on the side of the road. Early in the evening, a police cycle patrol also passed through, though there was no sign of police officers on foot during the time I was there. One of the two officers on the bike patrol informed me that the sex workers don't like having the police around.

"Sarah"

This wasn't the case for 32-year-old Sarah (not her real name), who has worked around Holbeck for 15 years "on and off." Sarah was a heroin and crack addict, but has cleaned up and now does sex work to provide for her children.

"I've said it for years: There needed to be somewhere where the girls can go, where the guys can go, where it's all contained," she said. "It's been going on a while now and it has made things better. The police liaison officer who works with us has been fantastic. There have been more police since Daria's murder, but I think it'll go down again. But there's not much the police can do once you're in someone's car. What we really need is a row of garages with, like, parking meter things and cameras outside. You put your money in, you go in, the shutters come down, and you can do your business inside and not have to worry."

Sanders hinted at such a solution in her review, asking the authorities to "consider the place where the sexual transaction happens as the place where there is most risk for sex workers. This place is not addressed in the current Managed Area model." Initiatives that solve the problem are already running successfully in Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, but are not being considered by Safer Leeds.

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The problem is that in those countries prostitution is legal and regulated, whereas in Britain it is not. "Unfortunately we're not there yet," commented the charity outreach worker I spoke to. In the absence of legalization and legislation to govern the industry, the police department and its partners will have to think of other ways to unobtrusively protect Holbeck's sex workers that don't result in just leaving them to it.

"The managed area is regularly patrolled by officers from the local neighborhood policing team as part of a specific patrol plan," said a West Yorkshire Police spokesperson, who would not answer my question regarding reduced police presence. "The results of the independent academic evaluation, which includes the recommendations around CCTV, street lighting, and so forth are currently being reviewed by the Safer Leeds partnership in detail as it continues to look at how the managed area should continue to operate as part of the city's wider strategy around sex work."

There is no doubt that policing the managed area is a difficult and delicate undertaking, or that West Yorkshire Police has taken a brave and progressive step by agreeing to do it. Nevertheless, one has to hope that the flagship policy won't be compromised by the need to save money.

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