Blog post: litter picking and shouting at BBC Question Time

Heads up: This isn’t a blog about theatre. In fact it’s a blog about why I am supporting a managed area for prostitution in Holbeck. But we’re going to take the long way round.

Earlier this week I went to a political fundraiser. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I’ve been talking about trying to get more involved in politics and paying extra to eat dinner seemed like an easy thing to try; I’ve tried local party meetings, going to public meetings, sitting on local committees- it’s all fine, important even but it’s not what I was looking for.
The fundraising dinner did, I suppose, deliver all that was promised. The politicians from the tele were there up close and personal. A lovely parliamentary candidate who had recently had a twitter bust up with Nigel Farage was sat at the table. I was sat next to a man who told me he was the pollster responsible for making my local MP shinier and more tv friendly. It was I suppose the sort of light weight political gossip experience that a man who has watched all 7 series of West Wing 5 times was secretly hoping for. It was perfectly pleasant, we raised some money to help some hopeful, bright young politicians compete against some specifically very bad conservative MPs. But as for being the scratch for a political itch it was like wanting to join the army and spending the evening playing Medal of Honour.
That evening, like most Thursdays, I came home and spent an hour shouting on Twitter at BBC Question Time. It’s a particularly childish and particularly satisfying part of the week for me. There’s a group of people who join in with me (or me with them) every week. Often agreeing but sometimes not, there’s not been a week gone by where I haven’t been corrected, my opinion shifted by something someone said. And not for the first time I’ve thought how many social functions Twitter plays for me.

But it’s not politics. Any more than live tweeting X-factor is politics. It’s shouting at the television with your friends.
In any case Thursday was one of those days where you end up feeling despondent and like one has no impact. A day when you start to question how useful it all is.

Meanwhile the local community police officer organised a clean up of Holbeck Lane. A litter pick on a Saturday morning. Slung Low are committed to being more practically involved in Holbeck and it was my turn so I pitched up to pick litter. The area we were picking was slap bang in the middle of the managed prostitution area of Holbeck.

Holbeck has been the centre of Leeds’ kerb crawling for a decade or more. The police do not have the resources to eradicate it from the area completely; the local police inspector is absolutely clear that he does not have the resource (nor is there the political will from on high) to remove street prostitution from the area. This is very important to remember: eradication of street prostitution from Holbeck is not an option available to the community.
So for the last month or so there has been a managed prostitution area in Holbeck. A non residential area of the town where from the hours of 7pm-7am the police will not prosecute the sex workers. Nor will they prosecute the clients of these sex workers. Outside of this time the police will prosecute. Anti-social behaviour and drug use will be actively prosecuted whatever the time of day or location.
The HUB is in the managed area. Slung Low has taken a supportive position of the plan. This has not been popular with all the community. There are genuine, thoughtful, humane oppositions to the plan. I do not have the monopoly on consideration here and don’t pretend to.
But I have some clear priorities;
I want my staff and audience to be safe.
I want Holbeck to be the best community it can be, and this can’t possible happen unless we get prostitution out of the domestic areas of Holbeck.
And it has always been my best consideration that the managed area contributes to this in ways that mean I can lend my support to it.

But I have to admit as I was picking up the third needle of the morning and using tongs to place what felt like endless piles of used condoms into bin bags I was having some very un-liberal thoughts. This week our neighbours on Bath Road have moved out- partly it seems in response to their volunteers being offered sexual services on their way to work- and with each condom picked up my patience for justifying the managed area to other local businesses was fading. There were moments that morning when I was absolutely certain, in my internal monologue, that we needed to give up on this managed area thing, doing anything other than decrying street prostitution from the nearest mound was nothing more than hand wringing liberalism of the worst kind.

As I was finishing picking up my bags of crap from the ginnel of doom one of the leaders of a programme that works with the women told me that last week there was a particularly nasty assault on a sex worker. This has been a recurring theme over the last ten years. Vile men violently assaulting women who would never dream of reporting the crime to a police that they could never see as anything other than oppositional. So the attacks continued, the attackers unknown, somewhere.
Except last week, thanks to the new relationship between the police and the women, this violent attack was reported. And the attacker caught.

The managed area is not perfect. It would be incredibly useful if the police could be more visibly present and active in ensuring that times and locations are kept to- Holbeck cannot take the steps of regeneration it needs to until street sex work is removed from all the domestic areas of the town. It’s also really hard to find the justice in the civic decision to keep prostitution in a part of the city that has enough to contend with. And of course in an ideal world I would like to live in a society that does not see women forced to sell their bodies to men in cars at all, regardless of whether those streets are where I’ve opened my theatre or not. But those are not the options available to us: in a profoundly unequal world, in a difficult situation, this is the best way available to us to make our community better.
And if nothing else- and there is much else- there is a violent misogynist who used to prowl around Holbeck who now is in prison; my family, my team, my audience are safer now than they were before. And that is absolutely thanks to this managed area, the product of some incredibly progressive community policing.

We live with a media system that insists on black and white, right and wrong answers to difficult questions; BBC Question Time is a key offender in this- “Do you think we should raise taxes?” “Will you close the borders?” “Will you lower migration?” “Should private schools be allowed charitable status?” The ridiculous simplification of incredibly difficult questions, the aggressive search for reassuringly simple answers to problems that should demand at least four “yes but let us also consider…”. And in response to the frustration with this failure we turn politics in to a soap opera. I find comfort in the ministerial machinations on Radio 4’s PM, or the whispered gossip of a man who made a shadow cabinet minister get a hair cut. If we don’t have the patience or the time for real content let us at least drown in hours of personality politics and whispers.

There are no simple answers. The questions around, for example, immigration and the impact of a global economy on UK workers are far too complicated to be answered in the allotted time our media system allows, and far beyond the wit demonstrated by too many of our national politicians. The easy, direct answers by the current wave of UKIP populists (and increasingly other parties) are pleasant to hear and nod along to in the sense that they allow us the rare sense of control and understanding but they are no more the answer than the idea that the forcible removal sex workers from Holbeck is the silver bullet for a town that has for far too long been the bottom of the pile in one of the nation’s most affluent cities. But for now the management area is the best option in a difficult situation. And it also occurred to me that in all the hours that I had spent on ‘political activity’ the litter pick was by some distance the most politically useful thing I’d done all week. It wasn’t the most fun, or the most salacious. But it was the most useful. And relevant. I want to be more useful.


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