Could YOU live here? TV agony aunt DENISE ROBERTSON patrols a city’s ‘legalised’ Streets of Shame
I SPENT a night walking the streets of Britain’s first official red-light area recently, talking to some of the women who ply their trade there. Why? To find out, for a television programme, exactly how streetwalking in an official ‘red light suburb’ has affected both the area’s sex workers and the families who live there.
The Holbeck district of Leeds is full of warehouses and office blocks, some occupied late into the evening by shift workers, others long dilapidated. It has dark alleys and black spaces, ideal for prostitution, but it also contains streets of residential houses, many beautifully kept and obviously cherished.
One superb town house, perhaps built in the late 19th century, stands proudly on a corner as if disclaiming any connection with what goes on nearby. But in the surrounding darkness drivers can be seen scanning shadowy footpaths and alleyways for ‘opportunities’. This is Britain’s first ‘legal’ sex-for-sale suburb, a controversial scheme allowing prostitutes to ply their trade on the streets at night without fear of arrest.
The ‘partnership’ between police and council agrees that officers will turn a blind eye to seedy activities in this particular area as long as they take place only between 7pm and 7am. Last week the scheme, piloted since October 2014, was hailed as so successful that it will continue indefinitely. The authority claims it has improved the safety of prostitutes in Leeds by encouraging them to report crimes committed against them, while reducing complaints from the public by a third.
That’s the claim. The reality seems somewhat different. The policy in Holbeck used to be one of zero tolerance: anyone found kerb-crawling or soliciting was cautioned, arrested or fined up to £1,000, which only shifted trade towards quieter parts of the city, whose residents complained bitterly.
Accordingly, the local authority announced that it was going to confine the problem to one area. Guess what? If you lived in Holbeck that meant you!
The move has affected house prices. Who wants to live in an official red light zone, particularly if you have children? Eventually Holbeck will become a ghost zone, peopled only by those residents trapped by circumstance and criminal elements attracted to this inviting ‘anything goes’ area.
One resident claimed “Before 2014 there was some prostitution in this area, but it was mostly poor local girls who had hit rock bottom. Now it’s become a magnet for sex workers from all over the UK, as well as from abroad.”
About half the prostitutes are English, the rest are European. British-born prostitutes are furious that the newcomers charge less, sometimes as little as a quarter of what the British women charge. A business owner now closes earlier because she fears for her female staff walking home in the dark: “I wouldn’t forgive myself if something happened to one of the girls who work for me,” she said. “I warn them never to stand outside while waiting for a lift.”
Another business is now surrounded by an iron fence in place of a brick wall, hoping to prevent sex acts being carried out. Residents claim they often pick up condom wrappers and used syringes from the grassy bank opposite their homes. Others claim crime has increased, with women luring men into dark alleys so pimps and boyfriends can rob them. I certainly noticed a hefty police presence. At one stage our TV crews’ cars were surrounded by eight police men and women, demanding to know what we were up to.
How would you like all that happening with official permission where YOU live? Because it’s quite possible that it could.
And are the working women really any safer? I interviewed one young mother, on the game for five years, at the very place where one month earlier the body of a 21-year-old Polish prostitute, Daria Pionko, was found behind an electricity substation on a deserted industrial estate. She had horrific injuries to her head and face; a 24-year-old man is currently in custody.
Touchingly, there were flowers at the site and the police told me sex workers regularly paused there to pay their respects. I asked the woman I was interviewing if the murder had made her afraid. “You have to accept it” she said. “Any night it could happen to you.” She told me she intends to give up prostitution next year and train as a nurse, but I doubt that will happen.
My real objection to all this is that the scheme is like sticking a plaster on a gaping wound, a view shared by the English Collective of Prostitutes. Like me they want prostitution properly legalised, not driven into ghettoes; allowed to pursue business discreetly, behind closed doors, subject to health checks and supervision.
Legalisation would put an end to trafficking, freeing the scores of women lured to Britain with the promise of decent work and then sold into sexual slavery.
And it would relieve British citizens of wondering if the next legal red light district would include THEIR homes.