Holbeck Residents Seeing Red: Is the End in Sight for the UK’s First Legal Red Light District?

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Locals, businesses and councillors are calling for an independent review of the UK’s first managed street-sex work zone. It was put in place in October 2014 by community safety partnership “Safety Leeds”, but many are now questioning whether the zone is working.

This is the first legalised street sex work scheme in the UK and allows the women to work in certain areas of Holbeck within a time frame (8pm-6am), with a view to improving the women’s engagement with support services. However, a letter to MP Hilary Benn from Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake revealed her beliefs that the rules of the arrangement are not being kept.

Whilst this avant-garde approach has seen some benefits, predominantly in terms of the women’s relationship to the police, some residents are not happy with the way the scheme is running. They want a comprehensive review which takes all opinions into consideration: local businesses, the police, local council, voluntary sector, and of course, the women themselves. Most people simply hope to rectify the plan and make the necessary changes so that the zone can continue operating. However, some believe that the zone is too problematic, and they want it to see it gone before it does irreparable damage to the area’s reputation.

“Save our Eyes”  is one such campaign who believe that the zone is doing more damage than good. They post photos of condoms and needles found in the local area – often in communal spaces, such as near the schools – and they think that the scheme has opened a ‘Pandora’s box’. This group fears for the safety of women in the area. They claim that local women feel unsafe if they go out on their own, fearing that they may be approached.  Similarly, Councillor Andrew Carter thinks that the zone has given ‘the pimp a licence in the city’ and although he recognises the scheme’s intentions,  he wonders how long it will take for them to accept that they got it wrong.

Not all council members are against the scheme – others have commented that it is a work-in-progress, and has already made working conditions for the women a little safer. Council exec member Debra Coupar said that she was willing to fully commit and work closely with the community in order to address the concerns of the people. She wants to move forward and create solutions that will help with the impact that street-sex work is having on local residents.

This is an incredibly precarious situation to navigate. A 2017 BBC documentary, Sex, Drugs & Murder, showed the hard-hitting reality of the situation; many sex workers feel that it is their only way to survive. The documentary revealed that many of the women are battling substance addiction, and are willing to withstand potential abuse and attacks in order to earn the money that they need to sustain it. This harrowing watch highlights the importance of the unprecedented zone. 

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This isn’t a clear-cut case; there are valid arguments on both sides. Those in support of the red light district argue that making sex work illegal again won’t stop women from soliciting, but will only make them more vulnerable to attack and exploitation. Although their views are different, councillors on both sides maintain that they want what’s safest for all of Holbeck’s residents.

Yasmin Filali

Image: [CTV News]