St Matthew’s Community Centre in Holbeck was packed out on Tuesday evening (3 October 2017) with 170+ residents and others gathering for a stormy community forum. The meeting was looking at the controversial local issues of the ‘Managed Area’ (a scheme designed to see on-street sex work tolerated in a particular zone), and proposed changes to the M621 motorway.
As a (relatively mild) starter, the meeting opened with a brief presentation and exchanges regarding proposals to alter the M621, centring around the idea to close junction 2a westbound (the sliproad coming up from the motorway onto Cemetery Road). The plans argue for increasing the capacity and flow on the motorway – but that junction 2a needs to close, to prevent drivers coming on the previous junction dangerously crossing 2 lanes of traffic to reach it. The works will also see the pedestrian crossing at junction 2 (by Elland Road) closed.
Local residents voiced concerns about traffic diverted onto local rat-runs, and that Holbeck will become even more jammed up – especially on match days at Elland Road. Others complained that – despite assurances to the contrary – they hadn’t received the local survey in the post; and still others added that they were fed up with being consulted on changes, when it never seemed to make any difference.
Local resident Dennis Kitchen was applauded for his comments: “These proposals once again show no interest in people, just traffic. Back in the 1960s, when they built the motorway, they didn’t consult residents, and ruined the area. The same is happening all over again.”
Moving onto the main course of the meeting, Martin Dean (the Council’s local Area Leader) opened the discussion on the highly contentious ‘Managed Area’. Other contributors included: Chief Superintendent Paul Money; local resident and lead campaigner for the ‘Save our Eyes’ group, Matthew Sullivan; Cllr Debra Coupar, executive Council member for Communities; James Rogers, the Council’s Director for Communities and Environment; and dozens of local residents. The debate was emotive, not short on sarcasm and wry laughter, angry at times, with plenty of heckling and interruptions – but there were plenty of demands from all corners to listen and respect one another too.
The ‘Managed Zone’ or ‘Managed Approach’ scheme was discussed, consulted upon, and introduced (“quietly”, Martin admitted) in 2014. It was designed as a break from the enforcement approach to prostitution, which had been the established method over the previous decades. (There was a general acceptance that prostitution has been in Holbeck at least 15 years, if not much longer.)
The scheme has sought to tolerate and contain on-street sex work in the non-residential district between residential Holbeck and Holbeck ‘Urban Village’, centred around Holbeck Lane – originally between the hours of 7pm-7am, but more recently reduced to 8pm-6am. But it was discovered and publicly ‘outed’ by the Yorkshire Evening Post in 2015, and generated a considerable local and national outcry. An independent review was undertaken in 2016 – and the Council again this week pointed to only 30% of respondents wanting the scheme to be fully stopped. But bitter complaints resurfaced from some at St Matthew’s that they’d never received the postal survey, and the suggestion that the Council “got the response they wanted”.
Some changes were brought in at that time, like the new timings, and a phone helpline. There has also been action on migrants working in the zone – and therefore contravening their status. And CCTV is promised. And a tragic backdrop to this has been the murder of Daria Pionko in the zone in December, and an attack there even just last month – but the scheme has continued.
One resident spoke up: “We were told it would get better, but it’s got worse.”
As they’ve done at previous meetings and online, local residents again at this event argued that the scheme is not being adequately managed. Over and over, complaints and stories were relayed, of a range of issues. In particular, the increasing levels of soliciting for and performing sex work (“brazenly”, outside people’s homes, on residential streets) throughout the day and night, not just in the zone but across the local (residential) area; many people especially stressed an upsurge in the past few months.
Furthermore: related crime, especially drug dealing and abuse; sex- and drug-related litter throughout the area; the value of their houses dropping, and their car insurance premiums rising; residents (men and women) being propositioned and even intimidated across the community (not just the zone) day and night; of the police being absent and unresponsive. These were just some of the comments:
“I’ve not seen a policeman out on foot in this area in 2 or 3 years.”
“It’s had a devastating impact on the community.”
“There are more and more men coming into the area, and they see it as a free for all.”
“It’s shameful; you can’t even walk about your own community and feel safe.”
“You’ve legalised something, and created increased supply and demand.”
“The growing South Bank developments are pushing them in our community. Can we not go back to it being illegal?”
Particular speakers included Louise Booth (head teacher at St Luke’s Primary School), who spoke about the daily (and increasing) work of clearing their site of condoms and needles, and the Police’s unresponsiveness. Another speaker was Elissa Newman (Chief Officer at Holbeck Elderly Aid), speaking of witnessing solicitation and sex acts every day, and this starting to jeopardise their work.
Matthew Sullivan from Save Our Eyes, a local residents’ campaign group, kicked off with a slideshow of photos from local residents, demonstrating their experiences of what he called the ‘non managed approach’. He argued:
“Who’s benefiting from this scheme? There’s lots of support for the prostitutes, but no-one cares about the residents. We accept the Police don’t have the manpower and resources they should, so we’re collecting data, and want to work with them. But a whole community has been put at risk, and things are getting worse – that’s unacceptable.”
He also flagged up stats that show only 25 cautions have been issued to sex workers in the past 2 years for working outside area – and only 5 arrests, 4 of which have led to charges being pressed. Not a single customer has been cautioned nor arrested in the same period. Meanwhile, Save our Eyes have logged over 100 reports of sex work outside of the zone. Echoing the sentiments of many expressed during the evening, he asked why the customers aren’t being targeted. “What’s the plan?”, he asked.
In response, Chief Supt Paul Money stated:
“I want be candid. This is a challenge to us. I grew up around this area, I don’t not care – but enforcement didn’t and won’t stop sex work. It was totally ineffective – and now we’ve even fewer resources. There must be another way. We wanted and still want to reduce the unacceptable impact on residents and businesses – but that’s not happened. We want to talk and work with you. Amongst other things, I’m looking at the legality of a name and shame campaign. If we’re going to keep the scheme, we need to make significant changes. Or if it fails, we’ll wind it up.”
His colleague Sgt Stuart Saville also admitted that the police had “taken their foot off the pedal” in the past month – but insisted that there had been an increase in patrols since the summer, that they’re answering the phone more, and are more responsive. One local resident spoke up to say she was seeing patrols, although they weren’t making much impact; many attendees disagreed though.
Meanwhile, Imran Shah – the Leeds chair of the Independent Advisory Group, that offers a ‘critical friend’ approach to the Police – insisted to the residents:
“Let’s not let them get away with it. They don’t live with this – you do. But they’re listening to you now, so let’s work together and crack this.”
James Rogers insisted that the Council was listening:
“You’ve been very clear about the impact. This is clearly not acceptable – and although we won’t be able to answer every issue, we understand, and want work with you.” Debra Coupar also spoke: “It’s despicable. Your voice is loud and clear. ” Her initial promise to “come back and tell you what we decide” prompted jeers, and she restated the importance of local representation, and working with local people. “Give us 2 months”, she promised.
In conclusion, Matthew Sullivan commented: “We’re at last now making ourselves heard. We’ve got our foot in the door. But we won’t take any more empty promises.”
As the crowd poured out of the venue at 9.45pm, there was plenty of frustration, and muttering.
“What’s it going to take to make it stop?” “Can we really trust them? They don’t have to live with it.” “If they don’t do anything, we’ll have to take matters into our own hands; it’s getting to that stage.” Time will tell.