Three years after the creation of the UK’s first boroughwide no-prostitution zone, Redbridge Council wants residents’ support to keep cracking down.
However, while sex workers have “disappeared” from the once-notorious Ilford Lane, outreach groups fear they are just being displaced to more dangerous areas or into pop-up brothels.
In 2018, a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) allowing police and council officers to fine men £100 if they are caught trying to buy sex was introduced across Redbridge.
Since then, almost 200 men have been fined and the number of women selling sex on Ilford Lane has reportedly dropped from around 30 a night to less than five.
But while residents shocked at seeing sex work on their streets may be pleased, outreach groups report their work building relationships with vulnerable women was completely undone.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Cllr Khayer Chowdhury, cabinet member for crime, safety and community cohesion, said residents feedback showed the PSPO had “dramatically increased safety”.
He said: “My goal is to make Ilford Lane known as a shopping and cultural hub, not as a centre for sexual services, and I will continue working on Ilford Lane for as long as residents want us to.”
Cllr Chowdhury credited a strategy group, also set up in 2018, with changing the council’s “culture and approach to sex work” and emphasising the need to support sex workers.
He said: “What the police and council (used to) do is, every now and then, have a big operation and arrest everyone. For 24 hours, they would blitz the area but it was not a consistent approach.
“We have to provide support and services to the women we come across… it’s not just about enforcement and cracking down. These women should not be treated as criminals.
“Part of this is also about speaking to residents and educating them. In the past, I’ve come across cases where women were shown hostility by local residents.
“Residents had their reasons for feeling that way but our job has been to say ‘do not be angry at these women, it’s the men coming in who are creating the demand’.”
However, not everyone is as pleased by the sudden disappearance of sex workers from Ilford Lane or as supportive of the focus on fining men who buy sex.
Sophia Burley, founder of Christian street outreach group Women on the Frontline Ministries, said the PSPO had been “unhelpful” to their work to build trust with women who need support.
She said: “We lost all contact with them because they just disappeared. We have no idea where they have gone, we believe they may have moved to neighbouring boroughs or into pop-up brothels.
“We understand police have to be taking enforcement action because residents are not happy but if the enforcement is only moving them somewhere else, how is that making a difference?
“Comments from some residents (I have heard) were ‘as long as it’s not happening here on our street, we don’t care where they go’. That’s not the right attitude to have, they need help.
“A lot of the women won’t engage with police and say they are working for themselves but we have good information that that’s not the truth.
“There were even times a woman said she had to pay to stand on a particular corner. It takes police intelligence to find out who’s behind it all.”
While Cllr Chowdhury insisted the council has “not noticed” a significant increase in brothels or sex work elsewhere in Redbridge, Ms Burley said a small number of women had started selling sex on Romford Road.
Furthermore, in March 2020, the council’s crime partnership manager John Richards publicly acknowledged its enforcement had pushed more women into brothels, as reported by the Ilford Recorder.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service in January, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECOP), a national group for sex workers’ rights, said displacement from other boroughs was how Redbridge became a prostitution hot-spot in the first place.
ECOP spokesperson Laura Watson said: “Criminalising clients does not stop prostitution or stop the criminalisation of workers. It does make it more dangerous for sex workers, which is our concern.
“Clients become nervous to stop, which means women don’t have the time to negotiate, check them out, see if there’s anyone else in the car or let a friend write the licence plate down. You just have to jump in the car rather than take time and that’s a very dangerous situation the council are putting women in.
“All this will do is displace sex workers into more isolated areas, areas they do not know as well. That’s how sex workers have ended up in Redbridge anyway, displaced from other boroughs.”
In 2014, the murder of 24-year-old sex worker Mariana Popa on Ilford Lane was held up as a tragic consequence of strict policing having forced sex workers into more dangerous situations.
Speaking to the Guardian at the time, England’s national police lead on prostitution, Chris Armitt, argued that attempting to enforce away sex work “simply won’t work”.
Redbridge Council, however, feels its landmark PSPO has been an unquestioned success and is hoping to receive residents’ support to keep going.
The council wants to extend the PSPO for another three years from August but is legally required to consult residents first, who can respond by completing this survey by July 14.