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By Mark Smulian...
By Mark Smulian

Are prostitution and regeneration parts of a vicious circle? Liverpool City Council thinks so, and has adopted a radical approach to accommodate prostitutes and their clients as unavoidable parts of big-city life.

It voted last week to become the first council in England to seek permission from the Home Office to set up a designated managed zone where prostitutes could legally ply their trade. No response is likely before the expected general election, but the city has made its position clear.

One effect of regeneration is to make older industrial and dock areas, where few people previously lived, unwelcoming to prostitutes. But they have to work somewhere, and may move to adjacent residential areas, whose inhabitants will then harangue the council demanding action.

That action either succeeds and drives the prostitutes somewhere else again, or fails and leaves the area as part of the sex industry and eventually, perhaps, in need of regeneration.

Liverpool, which is promoting private legislation to ban workplace smoking (LGC, 3 December), has liked to see itself as a leader in public health matters ever since it appointed Britain's first medical officer of health in 1847.

It is health, safety and liveability that underpin the council's desire to bring order to prostitution.

Few residents, according to consultation by Liverpool John Moores University, object to prostitution as such. Their concerns are over the related drug use, discarded condoms and needles, threats and nuisance to residents, kerb crawling and damage to an area's reputation.

Prostitutes are 'often subject to violence from customers and others who treat them as a target for robbery and physical or verbal abuse', researchers found.

Liverpool's plan, if approved, would also assist prostitutes because the managed zone would enable them to work in safety.

There would be 'zero tolerance' elsewhere, the council says, to ensure the zone is well used.

Researchers found previous efforts to control prostitution had merely shifted it around Liverpool, rather than reduced its incidence.

Kiron Reid (Lib Dem), who assists council leader Mike Storey (Lib Dem) on issues concerning the north of the city, says: 'The area adjacent to my ward is affected now that regeneration has kicked in to areas where the prostitutes used to work.

'Every time there is a police crackdown in one place, prostitution simply starts up elsewhere. But the managed zone is not just about policing, it is also about health.'

The managed zone would differ from the tolerance zone, which formerly existed in Edinburgh, because prostitution would be actively managed rather than have a blind eye turned to it.

However, the council has intentionally not yet identified where the zone might be.

It wants the principle accepted first, rather than bogging the issue down in arguments about its location.

A council spokesperson said the zone would not only give sex workers a safe place to work, but would help them leave prostitution if they wish. There would be a drop-in centre, which would offer health services and social care.

The research found 83% support among residents for the managed zone idea, with only 10% wanting increased police crackdowns to arrest prostitutes and 2% arguing for no controls.

Interviews with prostitutes found 96% supported the idea of managed zones and would be happy to work within one, citing increased personal safety as the main factor.

The zone would be sited away from residential areas and would operate only at night, but 72% said they would not object to this limit on working hours.

Among residents, the greatest concern was not sex but drugs, with 85% citing associated drug use as their main concern about prostitution.

Doncaster MBC elected mayor Martin Winter (Lab) says he is 'delighted' by Liverpool's move, and also wants to pilot a zone.

In turn, Doncaster's Streetreach project - which provides support and advice to sex workers trying to leave prostitution - has been recognised by Liverpool as a model.

Mr Winter says: 'We must recognise this problem will not go away. That's why we believe managed zones are a realistic solution, providing a controlled environment, which is away from residents' homes.

'This is not about condoning prostitution. It is about recognising and dealing with the problem to make people's lives better and our streets cleaner and safer.'

Utrecht, in the Netherlands, has had a managed zone since 1984. It comprises a section of road where client drivers can pick up prostitutes and then drive them to what the university report from Liverpool calls a 'finishing-off area' of partitioned parking spaces.

If Liverpool is granted a zone, the onward march of regeneration may pose future problems, and there is a cautionary tale from Edinburgh's experience.

Its zone was closed in 2001 because redevelopment upgraded the area concerned, and it has been unable since to find agreement on a substitute.

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