Utrecht

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The Independent Culture
Early evening in Utrecht's picturesque old town, and the scene is typically Dutch: gabled houses, Van Gogh bridges spanning the narrow canal, bicycles corralled for the night in their stands.

Nine years ago this area was the heart of the city's red-light district. The slamming of car doors at all hours and the pavements littered with used condoms enraged the locals. Controlling the area took police resources, relations were hostile and, despite the police's best efforts, the women always drifted back.

Residents took matters into their own hands, organising a street blockade that deprived the women of their clients.

In the end the city fathers made a radical decision, creating a unique scheme whose success has been widely copied in other Dutch cities.

Its special feature was an attempt to build an atmosphere of trust between police, public and prostitutes by putting the safety of the women first.

Prostitutes are now allowed to solicit in one side street parallel to a main road, alongside an industrial park that is empty at night. Once a prostitute has picked up a client, the couple drive to a specially designated parking lot with room for 10 carsat a time, separated by wooden fences. If women solicit outside the "tolerance zone", the local authority can prosecute them for "public nuisance".

Every night a converted lorry parks discreetly at the end of the road. Staffed by independent volunteers, though funded by the city council, the "living-room bus" offers coffee, condoms, company, comfort and advice. There are regular visits by doctors and dentists - most prostitutes do not qualify for state health insurance.

"Through this scheme we have finally been able to win some trust," says Jos Busch, a detective on the five-man team that runs the project. "It enables us to keep an eye on the situation without hassling anyone unduly, and the women now trust us enough toreport violence."

Plain-clothes officers patrol the area in an unmarked car once a week, and there is an emergency line to the police station in the bus.

The street remains mean. The women have been known to fight among themselves - at peak periods there is a queue for the parking pens.

Prostitutes under 16 are usually reported to the police by their colleagues. "Anyone young and pretty is a potential threat to custom," explains Busch. Drug dealing is rife. Time after time the same routine is repeated: woman gets into car, drives away, drives back, pockets money and crosses the road to buy drugs. The police believe it is not their job to interfere: "We can only persuade and encourage. We are trusted, in part, because we work within these limits," says Busch.

The same principles have been applied to window-prostitution, now allowed only on a row of house-boats screened from public view by scrubland.

Residents seem satisfied - as a local businessman explains: "It was a realistic solution to a problem that does not go away."

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