Friday, March 14, 2003

Paul Humphries

Green light districts

Liverpool wants to operate colour coded zones to show where prostitution will be tolerated. Paul Humphries reports

When the idea of Liverpool bidding to be the European City of Culture was first mooted, it was never envisaged that the council would adopt the "continental way" to try and solve its rapidly growing problem of street prostitution.

But council officials believe that only by learning how Europe's major cities handle their own street-walking problems can Liverpool begin to solve its own.

This could mean tolerance zones being set up in parts of the city.

In Liverpool, there has been a rise in prostitution, due to increased drug dependency, and they have been moving into residential areas to ply their trade — a problem seen in cities and major towns across the UK.

The council believes that by adopting continental methods and designating specific areas where these women can work could help solve the problem.

Conal Devitt, the council's group manager for community safety, says: "We are bidding for the Capital of Culture title and perhaps should start looking at prostitution the way other European countries do. It's time to look seriously at a new way of doing things."

A Dutch expert in prostitution has visited Liverpool and advised the council on where to introduce official prostitution zones.

Marika Van Doorninck, from the Institute for Prostitution Issues in Amsterdam, advised city leaders to open managed areas in retail or business parks outside the city centre.

Areas would operate under a traffic light system: green zones would be where prostitutes could work freely and red zones would be no-go areas, where police would operate a zero tolerance policy on kerb crawling.

Six possible sites are under consideration, all of which are retail or industrial sites that are empty at night and have car parks.

There would also be regular health screenings and support services available for the women.

If Liverpool adopts the policy it will lobby the Home Office for a change in the law to make prostitution tolerance zones official.

The city was hoping that the Scottish parliament would lead the way, but last month the Scottish National Party's MSP Margo MacDonald's prostitution tolerance zones (Scotland) bill, which would have allowed local authorities to officially implement similar ideas to Liverpool's, was roundly defeated.

The committee that studied the bill before it went before members heard evidence from Aberdeen city council. For the past 12 months an unofficial tolerance zone has operated in the city and was set up after discussions between Grampian police and Aberdeen, Moray and Aberdeenshire councils.

A survey has found that 172 prostitutes were working in the city's harbour area, 95% of them working to fund either their own or their partner's drug habit. Through the tolerance zone many are being helped to overcome their addictions and other social problems.

Councillor Yvonne Allen, who has been closely involved in monitoring the zone, told the committee the council welcomed the proposal to give local authorities power to establish tolerance zones.

"It is, however, important to emphasise that this is not about accepting that prostitution is unavoidable and inescapable. The bill should include encouragement to develop routes out of prostitution as a key part of operating a tolerance zone."

Edinburgh did not give evidence. The tolerance zone in Scotland's first city was too much for its citizens, who decided they could not tolerate it any longer.

The Leith district was chosen in 1991 as an unofficial working area for prostitutes, but as the run down streets became gentrified towards of the decade the women were no longer welcome.

Other areas were tried but complaints from businesses and residents forced Lothian and Borders police to eventually halt the experiment in December 2001. Prostitutes' support groups say attacks on prostitutes, drug dependency, health risks and the presence of pimps have all increased since the zone was abandoned.

Lothian and Borders and Grampian police say the zones in Edinburgh and Aberdeen have helped officers monitor the safety of the prostitutes and the public.

And, like their colleagues across the border, Merseyside police are supportive of the idea of tolerance zones.

But not all of the UK cities share Liverpool's ideas. Diane Bunyan, leader of Bristol city council, says: "Bristol isn't Amsterdam. A tolerance zone would only have any chance of operating in a bleak area far from residential objections.

"In Bristol, prostitutes are often victims, living in a harsh and violent world. To create an environment where the violence could flourish is a dangerous precedent to set simply to make prostitution easier to manage."

Liverpool politicians are certainly supportive of the idea, but it is too early to say if the city council will have the courage of its convictions and see this through to the end.

Yet, as Conal Devitt says: "We're going to have to be brave about this issue, because it won't go away."

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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