Views from a ‘Commer Inner’: Living on the Edge of the Leeds ‘Managed Zone’
For the past 6 years the inner-city suburb of Holbeck in Leeds has been an ideological battleground. Since the introduction of the Managed Approach in 2014 (which the UK press have labelled ‘Britain’s First Legal Red Light District’), tensions have flared between the city council, local communities and sex work advocates. Having spent the last 5 months in Holbeck, it’s becoming apparent that the conversations around the legalisation of sex work in Holbeck are unproductive — but not for the reasons many would think.
As a being of extreme levelheadedness and preparation, I secured a place on my MA programme in Leeds less than a month before the start of term. With the clock ticking the pressure was on to find a house, and fast. My requirements were: a one person flat (add sociable to the list), relatively cheap, a roof, a toilet and not much else. I travelled up to Leeds from Kent for 10 minute house viewings, I walked from one end of town to the other through industrial estates and out of the way retail parks and, finally, I found a one bed basement flat, in my price range with an immediate move in time. It was in the small inner-city suburb of Holbeck. The day I first came to Holbeck it was late Summer. The park was full of families, music was playing, flower beds were in bloom, and the steely Leeds city centre skyline was comfortably close. It was perfect and I took the flat on the spot.
It wasn’t until I got home that the doubt about my rash decision started to creep in. I knew nothing of the place I had just committed to for the next 12 months. I decided to give Holbeck itself a quick Google search, and even I was not prepared for the results that came up. Every news article repeated the same stock few phrases over and over — ‘needles’, ‘crime’, ‘condoms’, ‘sexual assault’, ‘murder’. And there was one repeated phrase that cropped up more than any other — ‘Managed Zone’. I learnt that Holbeck is infamous for its ‘Managed Approach’ to sex work, in what has been dubbed by the UK press as ‘Britain's First Legal Red Light District’. The Managed Approach was an initiative introduced by Leeds City Council in 2014, in response to growing concerns about sex work in the local area. The council describe the initiative as a ‘partnership approach’, which aims to resolve tensions between the local community, businesses and the women working in the Managed Zone by ‘legalising’ aspects of sex work within a set of loosely defined parameters. The approach has been hailed as a success by the local council, though it has created a hostile tension between the women working in the Managed Zone and local community groups, who claim it has brought an unprecedented level of crime into Holbeck.
So what are the parameters of the Managed Approach? Much of the tension between the local community and the council has stemmed from a perceived lack of rigidity in enforcing clear boundaries and expectations. In summary, those who sell sex will be able to work within a section of the Holbeck area (‘The Managed Zone’ itself, mostly the abandoned industrial estate and the roads that run through it parallel to the train track) between the hours of 8pm and 6am. Kerb crawling and soliciting is permitted within the zone, and workers are monitored by police patrols throughout the night. The Managed Approach still explicitly bans sexual intercourse and adjacent acts within the zone itself, and the women are not allowed to work outside of businesses that are still operating. Anyone found working outside the allotted times or area will be liable to the same anti-sex work laws as any part of the city. Criticism has been levelled at the council for being reluctant to release the exact limits of the zone — a decision undoubtedly made to protect the women who work there and curb any attempts at community vigilantism.
What was always going to be a controversial initiative at best has escalated at times into a full scale ideological war. In the 5 months I have lived here I have been asked to fill out two separate questionnaires on the Managed Approach. Holbeck is a town in a state of transition — for years Holbeck has been a rather conventional inner-city suburb, with its classic back-to-back housing in almost identical rows, its slightly higher than average crime rate and its higher level still of economic disadvantage. But the creeping tide of gentrification is making its way out of Leeds city centre and into the south of Leeds, and reactions are extremely mixed. In fact, when one tells anyone that they live in Holbeck, you will only get one of two responses; a wink, wink, nudge, nudge reference to the Managed Zone (‘well at least you know where you can go to get a job’) with some additional reference to it being ‘rough’… or, you’ll get a pleasant ‘Oh It’s really nice there now, they’ve done it up’. Neither of these reactions are necessarily true or fair, but they do represent the ideological tensions bubbling under the surface. Many residents are sceptical of how the creeping gentrification will help the town (a worry made entirely justified by the council’s decision to deem the gentrified area of Holbeck ‘LS1.1’ instead of the actual postcode, which is LS11), sparked in part by feeling as if the council introduced the Managed Zone as a means of siphoning all of the sex work in Leeds into one working-class area. Those who support the gentrification of Holbeck take similar umbrage with the Managed Approach, perhaps seeing it as a nasty stain that they just can’t remove. Local community groups, such as Save our Eyes, flame the fires of this discontent but doing regular rounds of the town and counting the number of condom wrappers and hypodermic needles they find on the ground. Such groups also report ‘viewings’ of women working outside the designated ‘zone’ (it goes without saying that there is little to no proof that these women are sex workers beyond ‘they were waiting by the side of a road’). Newspaper headlines claim that since the zone has been brought into effect, children have been approached on their way to school, and women have been sexually assaulted after being ‘assumed’ to be working (given all the moralising that occurs around the notion of sex-work equalling consent, the same energy is never given to women who work in the zone, who are actually at a much higher risk of sexual assault). A BBC Documentary in 2016, called Sex, Drugs and Murder: Life Inside Britain’s Red light District, went some way to portraying the women who work in the zone in a balanced and sensitive way (in fact the only issue I take with it is that inflammatory title). But other recurring news stories have continued to highlight the failures of the approach — the murder of Daria Pinko in 2014, a sex worker who was murdered whilst working in the zone, has continuously been held up as an example of the zone’s failure.
So this was the environment I was entering when I moved to Holbeck in September. I should preface this by saying that I am, and have always been, staunchly in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work. By some cosmic coincidence, I secured my flat in Holbeck a couple of days after making a start on what must be one of the definitive texts on the decriminalisation of sex work — Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers Rights by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, both of whom are themselves former sex workers, specifically (to use their terminology) street-level prostitutes. I would never profess to be an expert on the subject, but how I wish I could post a copy of this book through every letterbox in Holbeck, and then place a copy on every desk at Leeds city council. Smith and Mac’s analysis is radical and invigorating not only because they bring their own lived experiences to the field, but because they centralise sex work at the intersection of a multitude of different factors — class, race, gender, immigrant status, economic disadvantage and disability. The most vital take away from this incredible work is that Smith and Mac are not ‘pro’ sex work, though they are very much pro total decriminalisation of sex work. They concede that for women who sell sex on the streets, their work is often fraught with danger. However, against the charge of ‘exploitation’, they quite rightly point out that women — especially women who are disabled, immigrants, on the poverty line or drug and alcohol dependent — are exploited in any line of work, and that in fact sex work is a preferable situation for many of these vulnerable women because it requires no qualifications, no paperwork, they can decide their own hours and keep 100% of their profits. The main difference between sex work and, say, a minimum wage job cleaning toilets, is that at least the latter comes with a set of regulations and guidelines for employee welfare (though even here, Smith and Mac point out that immigrant women and asylum seekers are often exploited in these roles as well due to a lack of ‘right to work’ paperwork). Holbeck is mentioned in relation to this argument because it is an example of a ‘legalised’ framework, rather than a full decriminalisation. The difference between the two seems minor, but here it is crucial. Sex work has not been ‘legalised’ in Holbeck in the way many people think. The women who work in the zone are still bound by a set of strict set of rules, and though many who have been interviewed praise the approach for increasing safety, others have pointed out that it has created an environment of tougher sanctions and has saturated the market in Holbeck, meaning that the women who work in the zone are being pressured into working for less money or engaging in unsafe sex. Full decriminalisation would allow sex workers everywhere to unionise, and establish workplace guidelines and codes of conduct. These things are impossible under a criminalised system, and equally impossible under a partially legalised one.
So, after 5 months in Holbeck, I would indeed be critical of the Managed Zone — but like Smith and Mac, I would critique it for not doing enough. Not enough to protect the women who work in the zone (as again, the actual sexual act is still prohibited, meaning that the women have to go somewhere else, at the moment where they are most at risk, or face arrest), and by extension its shortsightedness has failed to address the attitudes of people in Leeds towards sex workers. Truly, in my 5 months of walking through the Managed Zone at least 6 times a week, I have seen one girl out working, one condom and one needle — something that I wouldn’t have batted an eye at in any of the other towns I’ve lived. Local community groups have suggested that the number of violent crimes has increased in Holbeck since the zone came into effect, whereas the official records show that the have remained pretty consistent, despite the fact that the number of reports for violent and sexual crimes reported has gone up due to the working girls new found level of security. If someone came to Holbeck not knowing the zone existed, I dare say it would take you a good few weeks — months — to realise. Unfortunately, the zone has failed both sex workers and the community because it clings to this framework of legalisation, rather than decriminalisation. It forces women out onto the streets, when there are dozens of abandoned buildings in Holbeck that could easily be renovated into working brothels. But of course, operating a brothel is still illegal in the UK, and the city council supposedly only has so much jurisdiction. And whilst the charges against the hyper-visibility of the women working in the zone is dubious, the inundation of press coverage and community push back makes the women working in the zone hyper-visible, and places them under intense scrutiny from the local community. The murder of Daria Pinko, as undoubtedly tragic as it was, is often used as an example of how the zone is putting women in danger. What it actually signifies is that the zone does not go far enough.
I have loved my 5 months in Holbeck so far. The community is wonderful. I speak to my neighbours for the first time in my life. And despite what you may have assumed from all the news coverage around Holbeck, it is a perfectly pleasant place to live. A recent article in the Yorkshire Standard listed the Top 11 most dangerous places in Leeds, based on the number of violent and sexual crimes reported. Holbeck didn’t even make the list (and for the record, Hyde Park and Headingley, the more middle-class and student friendly areas of Leeds, both did). The issues with Holbeck are not the Managed Zone, but the Managed Zone and the dissent around its introduction has revealed how archaic our perceptions of sex-work continue to be. It has also revealed how only a system of true decriminalisation can address the lived experiences of sex workers, as well as the negative public perceptions around sex work. Only a system of true decriminalisation, and a more stringent idea of how the gentrification of Holbeck will help alleviate the economic disadvantage in the area, will be able to address the concerns of the women working in the zone and the community at large. As a ‘commer inner’ (to use a standard Yorkshire-ism) I recognise that my viewpoint is that of someone who has not lived in this community for very long, and therefore my view should not be taken as fact. Therefore I have included some useful resources below. Hopefully Leeds city council and the community in Holbeck can reach a decision which is fair, respectful and productive for all.
Breakdown of the Managed Approach from Leeds City Council:
BBC3 Documentary Sex, Drugs and Murder: Life Inside Britain’s Legal Red Light District https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8Oma_yvMh8
Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers Rights — Molly Smith and Juno Mac (currently on sale!):
‘Facts and Myths About the ‘Managed Zone’ from Save our Eyes:
(Note — I do not endorse the views of Save our Eyes, but it is a useful resource for gauging the views of the local community)
The Leeds ‘managed zone’ can work — removing it will only displace vulnerable women, by Dr. Kate Lister for i news: