Safer Leeds

A West Yorkshire 'Sum of its Parts' that is keeping us - and our streets safe
Colin Petch
March 28, 2023

The City of Leeds is Majestic. Just like it’s Scouse, Mancunian and Geordie siblings – it’s full-to-overflowing with the very best art, culture, heritage and hospitality venues and attractions. This isn’t a ‘plug’ for Leeds tourism…but if you haven’t visited lately, perhaps a trip should be on your to-do list?

As with all urban centres, the night-time economy is a key driver of development & sustainability – and a huge attraction for thousands of us every week. And it’s a simple fact that Leeds is a really good night out – whether you’re enjoying some Tosca at the Grand Theatre, some House music at Fibre or a bowl of Rhagda Pethis at Bundobust – the home of Alan Bennett and the Kaiser Chiefs has it all.

What may be less obvious to visitors and residents alike, is the enormous effort that goes on week-in week-out, under-the-radar – to ensure that we’re all safe and supported, while we concentrate on enjoying ‘letting our hair down’.

Keen to hear from some of the folk who work to make our night-out brilliant in a less obvious way, we recently joined a multi-agency partnership to learn first-hand, how this West Yorkshire jewel continues to shine brightly.

Simon Hodgson is the Head of Community Safety Services at Leeds City Council and we joined him on a Friday evening at the city’s railway station. This particular Friday sees many of the statutory and voluntary sector partner organisations who provide an often invisible safety net for us – coming together to increase visibility and awareness amongst the general public about the work they do.

The event is staged on Child Exploitation Awareness Day, a national day of action and campaign around raising awareness of child exploitation (#KnowTheSigns) in all its different forms, be it in city centres, at home, or online.

Simon explains the rationale for tonight’s activity in Leeds: “We have a really strong local partnership called Safer Leeds, responsible for tackling crime and disorder. The range of partners work every weekend under the ‘Night Safe Leeds’ banner – it’s very much a collective operation. With thematics throughout the year, we’ll focus on different issues. Tonight it’s child exploitation.  

Working closely with both West Yorkshire and British Transport Police, the Night Safe Leeds team are involved in both covert and overt operations through the night until 4.30am. The Night Safe team are also able to provide many of the eyes and ears to support West Yorkshire Police’s Operation Jemlock and Project Spotlight – ongoing action to disrupt organised crime and tackle predatory behaviour in the city centre.

Simon: “It’s a really strong partnership. We can do a lot of early intervention work. We have Night Safe Marshals out from 9pm to 4.30am. They carry out de-escalation work – reducing demand on the police, the ambulance service and the NHS for example. It means people can get home safely.”

Simon (Right) With Some Of The Night Safe Team

All of the partner organisations operating across the city centre are connected by the BACIL (Business Against Crime In Leeds) radio network that is also linked to the night-time economy licensed premises/door staff – and the city council’s CCTV system ‘Leeds Watch’, run by Safer Leeds.

“Our primary objective: Leeds is the night-time economy capital of Yorkshire – it’s a great place – it has such a diverse offer which is really buzzing into the early morning. If you haven’t been for a while, try it! it’s exciting, lots of different people come from within the city, from the wider Leeds region and beyond. We want people in Leeds city centre to be safe and feel safe on the streets, the place they go, have a really good time and get home safely…and of course return. We call it ‘BE SAFE FEEL SAFE’ campaign work. Leeds is no different from any other city when it comes community safety issues but my recommendation to people is to stay with your group, agree a spot/ place where you will meet if you lose someone, look out for one another, and plan your journey home in advance.“

"The team is made of people who are truly compassionate and caring, here to inform, protect, safeguard and people on their night out.

“Child exploitation is a concern – and we need to continue to raise awareness around spotting the signs. Children’s Services Young Peoples Missing Team are also out tonight, led by Chole Grindrod. They are looking out for young people who are missing. We make sure they’re safeguarded and get back to a place of safety.”

The Missing Team receive alerts of children to look out for – again linked to potential child exploitation. The men and women on the team know many of the vulnerable young people who gravitate towards the city centre.

Simon Hodgson is justifiably proud of the partnership that he heads-up: “It’s about protecting those young people from serious harm. Each organisation, both statutory and voluntary – have specialist roles – but we’re here working together to make sure that everyone feels safe and is safe.”

Simon introduces us to Shreena, before heading off into the night like a conductor of a highly developed orchestra, that simultaneously plays in tune across a massive area.

Shreena Gobey is the WOMEN’S NIGHT SAFE Co-ordinator – and about to join her team at their Women’s Night Safe Space. Operating since November 2022, the Night Safe Space – is a Non-Judgement Safe Bus for women and girls to access every Saturday from 10pm to 3am. There is also funding available for an additional 12 sessions in the project’s first year, hence their welcome participation on this Friday night. This incredible initiative is usually based at the Corn Exchange, but tonight parks at the other end of the city near Morrisons and the universities.

Shreena is eager to tell us what the bus and the team do: “The Women’s Night Safe Space is there for all sorts of reasons: Charging phones. Waiting for taxis. If you’ve lost your friends. Healthcare help. Emotional support. If you’re in a Domestic Violence situation. People might arrive at the bus themselves – but we’re also on the radio network with the door staff and police – so sometimes they might refer – and bring someone to us who needs help.

“We’re about having that support ‘in the moment’ that can be quite frightening. And we want to make sure that Leeds is a great place for women who are having a night out.”

We ask how the organisation established there was a need for a service like this in the city?

“Women’s Lives Leeds did a women’s safety survey in 2021 and that showed that women in Leeds felt unsafe in the city-centre at night-time – it was the top finding. Responding to that created the rationale for the Women’s Night Safe Space.”

Shreena And Knitted Angela

With a massive skill set, a huge smile and buckets of positivity, Shreena is bringing her background as an experienced Youth and Community Outreach professional to this new, innovate role. “I Love street-based support. It’s practical help – and I don’t even need to know your name to help you in that moment. It’s a non-judgemental safe space. Nobody should be embarrassed to access us.”

The bus operates with 4 staff every Saturday night. In addition to Shreena, there is a Healthcare worker from Bevan Healthcare (who is a project partner), a Support worker from Leeds Women’s Aid and Women’s Lives Leeds and a security representative.

Shreenna: “Everyone’s been hugely receptive to the service – including men – and those working in the night-time economy. They’ve been super supportive. The Corn Exchange location is being used more and more because people know we’re there. There’s great relationship building happening.”

And the statistics back-up Shreena’s narrative. A typical night will see the team supporting fifteen to twenty women in all sorts of different ways. Almost two hundred women have been supported so far.

The most successful Outreach support models are using ‘mobile’ facilities. It makes it easy to be in different spots – and respond to need for particular events. The Bus says ‘Come and Talk to Us’ and  people do.

And Shreena confirms that the service has lots of male allies. The education taking place around women’s safety is essential for the male population.

“We’re doing lots of learning this year – to take the service forward. We’re funded until the end of September and there’s lots of evidence for why the project should exist. In the Corn Exchange area, there are no other night-time professionals supporting women. We are working with night-time economy partners to skill share – but the priority is to make sure there is a women-only opportunity for support available.

“Coming in [to the bus] to charge a phone or for cup of tea leads to much more…in safeguarding – and we’re making sure it’s fun! We want every woman to have the best night out in Leeds. Messages around women’s safety can sometime scaremonger – and we want to make sure no woman feels bad for going out and having a lovely time.”

Shreena goes on to talk about ’Ask For Angela’:

“We’ve got over 600 venues in Leeds as part of Ask For Angela. Those venues have had training. They’ve got their posters, window stickers – and that means if anyone is feeling unsafe – or something isn’t right – [perhaps] a date not going well…anything that makes you feel unsafe, you can approach staff in that venue and ‘ask for Angela’ or ‘is Angela working tonight?' That’s a code word really to say: ‘ I’m not feeling safe – can you help me?’ Staff will then help in a discreet way.

The initiative is currently broadening – and the organisation is seeking a project worker to expand the service thanks to Safer Leeds funding. Ask For Angela is a National scheme that has very much been taken to heart in Leeds. The amazing artwork for the Leeds Angela has been created by a local feminist artist – and it’s empowering. One of the numerous examples tonight of the amazing stuff that partnership working delivers: Ask For Angela is run with the Safer Leeds team who deliver training and support. Those words are known across the UK. If your Daughter, Wife, Sister, Mum or female colleague doesn’t know about ‘Ask For Angela’: Tell them.

And if you do drop in to the Women’s Night Safe Space, you might just meet a real-life knitted Angela. She’s on duty on the bus every weekend.

The next key component of this dynamic night-time partnership we meet is Rob Wilson from Leeds Angels of Freedom: This essential organisation, consisting entirely of volunteers, provide visible support for the LGBT+ community in the Freedom Quarter area of the city each Friday night.

And the Angels are very much embedded as part of the partnership that understands how to identify the signs of child exploitation. Rob explains: “It’s about having a second look. The police are always on hand for support. If you're uncomfortable with what you see – you should always raise that concern. ‘County Lines’ is an issue in Leeds – as elsewhere. Sometimes young people do pass under the radar. Kids with new mobile phones, new trainers etc. that are unexplained, could be a flag. Through training we’ve learned that gifts are often a means of introduction [to exploitation].”

Angels Of Freedom

Angels of Freedom launched on 1st Dec 2018 – and prior to that Rob volunteered with Street Angels (a Christian agency), that also works in the city at night. He explains: “Understanding and gaining that experience of level of risk and vulnerability was invaluable – as was learning to support people. It was an eye-opener – seeing night-time from the ‘other side’. There are predators in the city centre – who will take advantage of those that are drunk."

Although an LGBT+ focussed organisation – the team don’t exclude anyone – but do focus their efforts on the community in the Lower Briggate/Call Lane areas.

Rob explains the offer from his team: “We are more ‘up-front’ prevention – and engaging with people early in the evening. [We do] Lots of tackling isolation – when people are out alone. Often it’s those discovering themselves (Sexuality/gender identity). If anyone is feeling isolated and then goes out and becomes more isolated – it can be horrific, so we are there for those conversations.

“Society pushes LGBT new people towards the bar scene: ‘That’s where your people are. You go there’…and they aren’t aware of the other options. There are Lots of options. Just have the conversations. A lot of our volunteers are Mental Health First Aid trained and Suicide Prevention trained."

With a transparent bag of sweets as a device for engagement, the Angels will ask someone if they’d like some sweets – and how their night is going? “We talk about where you are now – and where you can be. It’s a journey for some people. We’re helping them to get a path through it.”

On a typical Friday night, it may be hard to quantify, but there is lots of anecdotal evidence that the Angels efforts are making a real difference.

They also run a once-a-month café that has 40/50 customers attending, for people who aren’t into the bar scene. It’s a non-judgemental – and fun place to make friends and access services.

Rob confirms that there is a massive percentage of young homeless LGBT people who go off the radar, because they’re not on the streets – they’re sofa surfers. Housing he says, is an issue.

The Angels Of Freedom are rapidly becoming much more than a safe space on a night out. They’re also a one-stop shop for access, support and reducing vulnerability. The team are key in building trust around themselves, partner agencies – and the community.

Rob counters: “We're not naïve. We’re like a check and challenge critical friend. I’m passionate about community and enabling other people to do positive things. In Leeds the joined-up approach is working – because we all want to keep people safe.”

The bar scene is still central to the LGBT+ community – but with the greater level of acceptance, designated areas are shrinking as people feel more comfortable in mainstream settings. However the Leeds scene is still thriving – and very much a destination.

So what are the plans for the next 5 years?

Rob: “We’ve currently got 25 volunteers and the café is very popular. There is a need and in the longer term we are working towards having a city centre base, in partnership with other organisations. We’d like to have a vehicle on a Friday night too – that would change the method of interaction.”

And Rob and is colleagues are on a path: They’re currently in the process of becoming a registered charity – which will open up funding opportunities – and possibly the creation of a paid role in the future.

The Child Exploitation Awareness Day ‘Pop-Up’ that is greeting travellers as they pass through Leeds City Station tonight would not have happened without the enthusiasm and drive of Jamie Clarke, together with his acute understanding of the role our railway connectivity can play in child exploitation. Jamie is a station Duty Manager for Network Rail – but more importantly than that he advises: “I’m a Dad – and anything I can do to help tackle exploitation – I will.”

Jamie From Network Rail

Possibly more than most, Jamie understands the diverse demographics and sheer volume of people that access his station on a weekly basis. He and his leadership team are absolutely central to the Safer Leeds partnership.

Rebekah Vickers is the Service Delivery Manager for the Young Peoples Exploitation Service with charity Basis Yorkshire and is clearly passionate about the service and its role.

Basis is a Yorkshire-based organisation that work with young people who are at risk of/have experienced/or are currently experiencing child sexual abuse and/or exploitation.

Rebekah explains: “We’re here as an agency to show visibility and be involved with partnerships – we want to inform the public that there are support services for young people who are exploited and sexually abused.

“We work one-to-one with young people who fall into that category – doing bespoke crime reduction support. Young people might be entrenched in what’s going on – and it’s not as simple as just walking away from it. There’s a lot of nuance and trauma involved and all of our workers are trained in understanding trauma and also how to work with a young person to build safe, positive adult relationships – because quite often they don’t have many adults in their lives that they can trust.

“We’re not a statutory service, so as the voluntary sector we’re seen as ‘approachable’. We work closely with partners in the police and social care – but often we’re the more approachable party, because we don’t exercise any power."

Rebekah (Left) And Colleague From Basis Yorkshire

Young people can self-refer to Basis Yorkshire, but there are also referrals from schools, social care and through A&E Youth Navigators in hospitals – when they recognise a young person is at risk. Further connections are made when young people suggest they might have a friend that would also like to talk to Basis. Rebekah is clear that the key is that workers are really approachable and flexible.

And Basis Yorkshire also carry out essential prevention and early intervention work, as Rebekah explains: “We have a fantastic worker who visits Leeds schools. Schools may have a concern – and we do more of the early intervention work. We offer training to professionals across the country in recognising exploitation and managing the complexities of working with exploitation and how lots of young people don’t recognise what’s happening – and how we can work within that cycle change to pull them out of exploitation.”

Basis Yorkshire Initially started life as an organisation supporting women who were sex working in the mid-80s in Leeds. They still run a thriving sex work service, carrying out outreach in areas women are working, to provide safety, information and support. Rebekah advises that the charity operates a ‘Harm Reduction’ model of working.

She continues: “Our Young Person service started, because as we were working in those areas, we were seeing young people on the streets. In those days the language was ‘child prostitution’  - but we recognise that it was actually Child Sexual Exploitation and have been working with young people ever since. We work with all young people – recognising there are a lot of vulnerable LGBT+ young people."

Funding such a far-reaching and vital service is a constant worry – particularly in a post Covid world. Rebekah confirms that risk has escalated – and the Basis referral inbox is always full. With the biggest team yet – the pressures are huge. “There was lots of online exploitation during the pandemic – that’s where young people go to meet and form relationships. The primary mode of exploitation has changed from starting online and then moving into real life.

“Anecdotally: we’re seeing more young people worrying about the Cost Of Living Crisis – which might push them further into exploitative situations – if they feel they need to bring something into the home – or home’s not warm and it is better to be out and somewhere else. These worries place them at more risk."

Basis Yorkshire has a team of  3.5 full time (equiv) Outreach Workers and a Schools Worker. There is also a 16-Plus Worker who works with young people as they transition to adulthood – because the charity understands that exploitation doesn’t stop at 18. Rebekah: “Lots of services do stop working with young people at 16, but we recognise that support needs to continue well into adulthood. Lots of care leavers are being exploited - A big passion of ours is to drive that message forward.

“Within the schools we’re reaching approximately sixty young people per term – each case worker working with 8/12 young people. We’re currently working with over 30 young people, with an additional 10 who need support. We could use another 2 workers to meet the demand in Leeds – in Bradford there is even greater need.”

Rebekah talks about ‘Push and Pull factors’ in exploitation:  Push out of the home – if there’s domestic abuse. If home doesn’t feel safe or a good place to be. Equally if a young person is feeling ‘I can’t be here – we can’t have the lights on, there’s no food, its cold’.

Pull factors include: being able to get money or have relationships – a feeling of acceptance. Young people want to be part of a family group. Gangs can often represent a family group and safety.

Rebekah confirms there is lots of evidence in schools of young people not feeling safe and consequently consider carrying knives for their own safety. Being told: ‘We’ll protect you if you do [something] for us’ can be attractive. ‘Transactional’ is what grooming or exploitation ultimately is.

Some of the most visible and instantly recognisable members of tonight’s efforts are officers from the British Transport Police and West Yorkshire Police. Chatting with a pair of BTP constables, their motivations are clear: “Partnerships are really important for us. Lots of us travel on the railway – it can be a way to escape relationships and situations at home. It’s also a way to move around with drugs etc, so its important the public are aware of what we do.

“We’re here to spread awareness. We try to be as visible as possible. We want people to feel that they can approach us. We can signpost to these amazing charities. We’re also handing out cards about the Railway Guardian App…which is an immediate way to contact BTP.”

British Transport Police Officers

I wonder if they are still seen primarily as the ‘long arm of the law’? Their response is unequivocal:

“It’s a diverse environment. We come across lots of people and help with anything we can. Sometimes the job is a thankless task – but we get on with it. We’re about signposting…assistance. We’re not here to lock everybody up. We’re a safe place people can come to seek guidance and assistance regardless of how we’re portrayed in the media at the minute.

“Police have had a bad press recently…but the main thing is helping victims of crime, child abuse, things like that. We lend a helping hand. It’s a typical Friday night so far…”

And to reinforce the sentiments of the BTP officers, as the night progresses I encounter West Yorkshire Police Chief Inspector Jon McNif, who is engaged in some positive reinforcement and briefing of partners in the city centre, as the time approaches that venues start to see customers heading home. Jon is exactly the kind of ‘Bobby’ who you instinctively feel would take care of you if you needed help. He also has the demeanour of a man who could disable a triceratops – if it was required. Like everyone else I’ve met tonight – he confirms 'he just wants everybody to have a good night and get then home safely'.

Chief Inspector Jon McNiff Talks With Street Marshalls

As midnight hits, I head with Simon to catch-up with Shreena, her bus and Knitted Angela. So far it’s thankfully been a quiet evening – and gives me an opportunity to talk with Dominic, a Paramedic with Bevan Healthcare who is on duty tonight and explains about his wider role: “We operate the Street Health Team Vehicle (Women’s Night Safe Space) – there’s one in Leeds and one in Bradford – where we also manage Inclusion GP Practices – looking after asylum seekers and refugees, the homeless, sex workers – and any marginalised groups.”

Bevan Healthcare is a social enterprise and has been commissioned by the NHS to deliver a range of services. Dominic adds: “It’s a difficult world to work in at the moment. I don’t know if as a country we are being as kind as we could be.” (He’s referring to current legislation, policy and political opinion at a national level.)

“Primary healthcare is free for everyone. Chronic based illness is more complicated. We’re here to get people the support they need. Healthcare – if you start looking after it early, it often brings better results.

“Homeless people are very busy surviving and healthcare is not a priority – and homelessness regularly leads to mental trauma being experienced. People are perhaps struggling to access services because of issues from the past, or they have no address or phone number.

“Complications like sex work and addiction can mean it's hard to go and speak to a professional about health-related things. We build trust and relationships in a relaxed and special way – that isn’t about appointments – only 10 mins with a GP – and so on.

Paramedic Dominic Getting The Message Across

“There’s no real agenda…but on the back of that familiarity and trust – we hope we’re helping them to go get through the system. When life’s confusing – these things can be daunting.”

We both agree it’s very sad that we need a safe space (for women). The fact that it’s because of us as blokes – and some of our actions – that this bus needs to exist, is incredibly sobering on a Friday night.

I leave the bus and the team – and Simon Hodgson (who’s been at work so far today for 17 hours) – and head home, in awe of each one of the highly committed individuals I’ve encountered. People with the most diverse range of skills, experience and abilities, but all ‘cut from a cloth’ that’s concerned with care, compassion and a desire to help us – the public –  to enjoy our city centres and be safe.