Leeds City Council: It’s time you listened well to Holbeck

Voice of Holbeck, a coalition of community groups, has today released its ‘Listening Well’ report about local residents’ experiences of the decriminalised red-light area in Holbeck, Leeds. The area is also known as the ‘Managed Zone’ because it is part of the Leeds-wide ‘Managed Approach’ to prostitution, but as one young person who contributed to the report, said: “It is not managed at all, we are approached.”

The report is the result of a year-long community engagement that involved nine community events, paper-based questionnaires given out through schools, and written submissions from people who couldn’t attend the events. Over 500 people of all ages and a wide mix of backgrounds participated.

I’d had some preparation. I’ve seen the zone for myself and have listened to local residents at some length. But still, the report makes harrowing reading.

Key themes

Local residents, particularly women and children, often feel unsafe and afraid to go out alone especially after dark. This is because of the threat of harassment by kerb crawlers and the sinister and threatening presence of pimps, drug dealers and armed robbers. When local men and boys are out and about on the streets, they are often propositioned by women involved in prostitution. Residents, including children, are confronted with punters having sex with women involved in prostitution in public. The streets are littered with condoms, used tampons, wipes, needles and other sex and drug paraphernalia.

Here are a few quotes that give a flavour of local residents’ concerns:

“Daughter walking down Rydall Terrace…man approached her in a car and asked if she wanted to earn any more, when she said no, he asked if her friends did… She was also approached whilst at high school in her uniform, she was asked if she wanted sex, if she would give a blow job… It has happened to my friends’ children too… this was at 2.15pm, outside of the zone.”

“Whole thing locally is so intertwined, it blows my mind that we’ve allowed it to get to the point where we need a clean-up team in an area that is so devalued already. It teaches kids that people are consumable commodities it is a bad reflection for society. Horrific for self-worth, people should be taught that they matter.”

“It (Managed Area) has increased drugs, harder drugs, violence. It has a ripple effect. It is catastrophic.”

“The childminder had to show the kids pictures of used condoms, wet wipes, needles etc. so they knew what not to touch – no child should have to see that.”

“I saw people having sex in my garden.”

“What do you tell your kids?”

“I lived in Holbeck for 6 years before the zone was introduced, it was a decent place to live. We now have prostitutes on street corners, condoms, wet wipes, gloves, needles on our streets. You can’t let your children play out for fear of what they might see. There’s drug dealers and drug users doing deals on the street corners. You never know what might happen.”

“A lot of people feel worn-out, there’s a lot of apathy. They feel like they haven’t been listened to. It is a shame that now people don’t trust the decision makers and they’re not engaging with the process.”

The press conference to launch the report

When asked at the press conference what they were hoping to achieve by the report, Voice of Holbeck representatives said that they hoped it would help people to understand the real impact of the zone. The impact is not restricted to the designated streets but spreads throughout the neighbouring residential areas.

They hope Leeds City Council will take the report on board and re-evaluate the scheme. But the reality is that positions have become entrenched and many of the strategic leaders are so bound up with the ideology behind the approach that it’s hard for them to take a step back. But they need to. They need to consider the bigger picture and accept all the evidence that suggests that the ideology simply doesn’t work in practice.

The basis of the Managed Zone was set out at the beginning with a number of rules put in place by Safer Leeds and West Yorkshire Police:

  • “No offences will be tolerated at any time within residential areas;
  • No offences will be tolerated between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. (extended from 7pm previously);
  • No offences will be tolerated outside businesses which are operating;
  • Business premises will be respected and litter disposed of responsibly;
  • Drug use, trafficking, organised crime and coercion will at no time be tolerated;
  • Crime, public disorder and anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated;
  • Indecency will not be tolerated at any time.”

Bill Birch from Voice of Holbeck pointed out that on every single one of these counts, the policy has failed, and the rules are flouted on a daily basis. How can a policy that has so comprehensively failed – even after huge sums of public money have been thrown at it – not be reconsidered?

But it seems that attitudes have just hardened.

Leeds City Council has held two debates about the approach – the first in October 2018 and more recently on 11 November 2020. On both occasions the Labour Party, which holds the majority on the council, voted as a block to maintain the zone.

But not a single Labour councillor actually lives in or near Holbeck. Would they put up with such a scheme on their doorstep? Would they get away with locating it in any of the well-healed areas in North Leeds? Of course not.

How did the Labour Party – a party that claims to give ordinary people a voice and to work to improve their lives – become so cruel and heartless and dump such an inhumane scheme in Holbeck, one of West Yorkshire’s most deprived urban areas?

How can it justify its continued refusal to listen to the ordinary people of Holbeck and look the reality of the scheme in the face? How can it justify its callous indifference to the suffering of the women and girls in the Holbeck neighbourhood, not to mention the suffering of the women and girls who are involved in street prostitution there?

When the zone was initiated in 2014 there were approximately 50 women involved in street prostitution in the area. Now there are an estimated 144. This shows that men have flocked to the zone and more women have been pimped and trafficked to meet the extra demand.

Workers from the Joanna Project, which is one of the organisations that provide services for women involved in prostitution in the zone, has said that the average length of involvement in street prostitution is nine years. Many die prematurely – from drug overdoses, violence, suicide, malnutrition, and the chronic ill health that is a common consequence of women’s involvement in prostitution.

In the Joanna Project’s garden, there is a memorial dedicated to the women they work with who have died. In 2020, they laid stones for sixteen women. Sixteen women they’d worked with, who’d been involved in prostitution in Leeds and had died in the past year or two. Sixteen. Let that sink in.

Leeds City Council and the Labour Party, you have blood on your hands.

There is no evidence that the zone has made women safer.

In the press conference, residents said that many of the women who are involved in prostitution in the area are accompanied by ‘boyfriends’ who can sometimes be seen coercing them into going with punters against their will.

Even though the women are often in very poor physical, emotional and psychological health, men pay a lot of money to sexually use and abuse them. Little of that money stays with the women, who can often be seen scavenging for food in rubbish bins. Most of the money goes straight to the pimps and drug dealers (who often double as pimps).

There is a whole layer of organised crime that feeds off these women – most of whom are addicted to Class A drugs. Could you survive being groped and penetrated by every Tom, Dick and obnoxious Harry, day in day out without being off your head? It is a living hell.

Natasha, who was herself in prostitution and addicted to drugs for many years, said that while she believes the Joanna Project has the women’s best interests at heart, they are in fact enablers. Slightly easing the situation only serves to keep the women trapped. She is hoping to set up a project for women in prostitution that really helps them to break the cycle by offering drug rehabilitation and real alternatives. We wish her every success.


Every year, hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money is spent maintaining the zone, which implicitly condones pimping, trafficking, and men’s entitlement to buy sexual access to vulnerable women.

Why doesn’t Leeds City Council spend that money cracking down on the kerb crawlers and pimps, and investing in addiction services and real alternatives for the women?

Paula from Voice of Holbeck said, “We don’t support the police fining or otherwise targeting the women. Targeting the men would be far more effective.” She explained that if the supply of punters dried up, and proper exiting and drug rehabilitation services were available, the women would need to seek help and would have somewhere to turn.

Many of the women are mothers and some of their children are in care. So what we see happening is a cycle of oppression – driven by the sex industry. It is so wrong. We desperately need to change that.

The Voice of Holbeck members are worried that the strategic leads for the Managed Approach will dismiss the report as being out of date and say that things have changed. One of the journalists present asked whether it was true. Have things changed? What are you seeing on the streets at the moment?

Several residents reported that in the past week they’d seen women loitering and soliciting on the residential streets outside the zone during the daytime. They believe that if they report them to the police, the women are fined under the COVID regulations – which makes a mockery of the whole thing. The zone was introduced because it was clear that fining the women makes no sense. Most of them have no resources to pay the fines and simply have to return to the streets to raise the money.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

In the words of one of the women in the press conference, we need to ask what we are teaching our boys and girls about the value of women and girls in society, and what boys should expect from women when they grow up. What do we expect them to think if they see our governments publicly funding and condoning the buying and selling of women and girls on the streets?

And yes, the residents made it clear that the kerb crawlers are not just looking for women, they’re also actively looking for girls. Girls in school uniform.

Bill Birch summed the situation up well: “Only a fool could read this report and not conclude that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Further reading

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