The room was packed with residents who wanted to have their say about the managed sex work area, for once those responsible for the decision were present to explain their position. There was tension in the room, feelings were running high, but was a mostly very well ordered meeting.
I don’t live in Holbeck, I was there to report on the meeting. Although I have my views on the scheme, I was able to take a reasonably detached view of the proceedings. I found myself focussing on how people in the room were communicating and whether they were connecting.
I have a lot of sympathy with both sides of the argument. No one should have to put up with curb crawlers and women working on their street. Two comments from the floor particularly struck me.
One man said a workmate who lives in Gipton told him “you live in the armpit* of Leeds” (*he actually referred to another part of the anatomy that begins with ‘a’). The man seemed more upset that someone from Gipton should say this than the actual insult to his neighbourhood. Such is local reputation.
Then an older woman said “I’m embarrassed to tell people where I live.” That really summed up the mood of the meeting for me, which is why I used it for the newspaper headline. Most of the organisations I work with, or talk to and trying to build ‘community pride’. But how can you be proud of your community when you struggle everyday with propositioning and used condoms?
The people on the top table set out their reasons for setting up the managed area. I thought they were pretty clear, sensitive and avoided using jargon. But many people in the room didn’t hear and/or connect with what they were saying.
I don’t know Neil Evans or Sam Miller personally, I’m sure they are very nice people, but on Saturday in Holbeck they were the establishment. They were part of the ‘they’ that do things to ordinary people. ‘They’ can be anyone in authority: the council, the police, the utilities, the government, the courts, the media. Many people don’t differentiate.
What mattered was that these were middle class people who didn’t live in the area, but got to make decisions about what goes on in the area.
One of the big complaints from the floor was that residents were not consulted about introducing the managed area. “But we did!” came the response from the top table. Actually both sides were right.
There are a number of residents groups in Holbeck and Councillors and Police went to each one to discuss the scheme and even negotiate some of the details. The meetings were advertised, minutes circulated … but not many people go to these meetings.
A hundred people turned out on Saturday because the scheme had been splashed across the Sun the Daily Mail and Yorkshire Evening Post. Blimey, it was even on Radio 4’s Today Programme yesterday!
My initial reaction to the national media getting hold of the story was horror. There has been sensationalising and misinformation. I doubt the coverage tempted any more women onto the street, but I expect it brought more men into the area looking to buy sex. Papers like the Sun and the Mail are quite prepared to trash a neighbourhood to sell more papers. They don’t do nuance, and this is a complex story.
But I have admit that one outcome of the media furore has been that extra resources have been committed to the area, notably police officers and cleansing teams. So perhaps even red top journalism can be a force for good?
So did either side hear what the other said on Saturday?
The people next to me got up to leave at the end saying “That was a waste of time” and “Nothing will change.”
I suspect those on the top table did hear the anger and frustration in the room. I’ve been in meetings like that before and it’s not a comfortable experience. My hope is that they use the meeting as ammunition to secure more resources for Holbeck and they redouble their efforts to manage the managed area and the whole of Holbeck.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.