Since I first stood to become a Green councillor for Leeds City Council, I’ve frequently been asked about the ‘Managed Zone’ (MZ), which is (to cut a longer story short) one of the UK’s first decriminalised sex-work areas. (If you’re not a local and are wondering what this is all about, check out some of the coverage from the BBC, Vice, the Yorkshire Evening Post or the indefatigable South Leeds Life.)
The zone itself is in Beeston and Holbeck ward, whereas I’m standing for the next-door ward, Hunslet and Riverside. That said, I do go past or through the zone almost every day; I’ve have seen some antics I shouldn’t have had to; and I’ve been involved in some intense discussions about the MZ as a member of my local tenants’ and residents’ committee. So it’s right that people should ask me about it, and me and the Green Party’s lead candidate in this ward, Ed Carlisle, have the following stance on it.
I think we have to start with three facts:
- People were complaining about outdoor sex-work widely across South Leeds, and certainly in Holbeck, long before the MZ started.
- The Council seems to have done okay prior to the MZ at moving most Leeds sex-work indoors. Certainly when the MZ began, the women working there were about 40 very troubled women who were in such a bad situation that getting them to work indoors just wasn’t possible.
- So we have to accept that we can’t just magic outdoor sex-work away. (There’s a rumour you sometimes hear that Ipswich has cracked the problem, and I must find out more about their strategy, but it’s a very different town from Leeds and outdoor sex-work there hasn’t completely gone.)
The bad effects of the MZ for people in and around Holbeck have been dramatic, and created a political momentum that I’ve never seen in this part of town before. Together, we need to use this momentum to create good outcomes for the area.
The Green Party is consistently much more committed than Labour to devolving power down to the lowest possible level, and we’d push for a much more consultative approach to local government. The Council should have consulted much more widely and thoroughly among Holbeck residents and businesses before rolling out the MZ. Better for everyone that people give the Council a hard time before a scheme starts than after. Better consultation would have helped the Council foresee a lot of the problems that have since arisen, e.g.:
- The policing and clean-up teams weren’t adequately funded.
- Media attention might attract extra sex-workers/punters to the area.
- Putting CCTV cameras in the MZ might encourage the workers to operate outside the MZ.
- The MZ would expose how mental-health support for the sex workers is inadequate.
But now that the MZ is there, the question is what to do about it. It would be simple to close it and disperse the sex-work back across the ginnels of South Leeds, preventing any single, big group of residents from opposing it, and therefore giving the Holbeck and Beeston councillors a quieter life. But I don’t think anyone wants that.
I would be wrong to say that I have ‘a policy’ to solve the problems, and there are two reasons for that:
- Solutions need to arise from proper consultation with all parties (Save Our Eyes, other residents’ groups, businesses, the sex-workers, chariites, police, etc.), so there’s no point me declaring from on high some strategy I’ve invented.
- We need better data: for example, I want reliable information about how far the MZ has attracted extra sex-workers from elsewhere, and how many. I haven’t had time to go through all the data that’s available — though I’d take a fine-toothed comb to it if I was elected. But at the moment, Save Our Eyes don’t trust the police’s data, the police don’t (I believe) have access to Save Our Eyes’s Facebook page, charities helping the women are wary of putting them at risk, so no-one has a full picture. We’ve got to improve this situation!
Overall, then, this is my current pitch for what we (the Greens in Hunslet and Riverside) would offer about the Managed Zone in the ward next to ours (but I’m learning more all the time):
- We recognise that many people’s lives are being blighted by the managed zone and it needs to change.
- We’d bring a properly involved, consultative approach to finding better outcomes, by councillors who live in the area and are personally affected by the issues.
- We argue generally that South Leeds hasn’t been well looked after: this is part of the background to the sex-work issue. We need to make sure the older neighbourhoods next to the planned, redeveloped ‘South Bank’ all benefit from the regeneration and economic stimulus there.
- We know that money spent preventing/resolving drug addition, and providing better mental-health support in relation to sexual violence, repays itself many times over. We’d push for these longer-term policies.
Finally: this is an issue for another day, but eventually, somehow, Leeds also needs to have a grown-up conversation about drug policy. Drug dealing and abuse is linked to the sex-work problem and is a real blight for many of us here in South Leeds. Everyone who actually lives here recognises that drug use/abuse is far too common for the police to enforce the law. Precisely what we can do about this is harder to say, and the Council can’t change national drugs policy. But a big, serious, open-ended conversation about drugs in this city would be worth having.