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City stalls on red-light 'tolerance zones': Birmingham councillors seek campaign to change prostitution laws but deny 'fudge' on instant reform. James Cusick reports

BIRMINGHAM took a small step towards becoming the first British city to establish an approved red light district after a council committee yesterday passed a report recommending a national campaign to change laws that would enable 'zones of tolerance' to be set up.

The report from Birmingham City Council's community affairs committee was ordered as a result of growing concern that prostitution in the Balsall Heath area was spiralling out of control.

The report yesterday contained 21 recommendations, which ranged from calls to examine welfare legislation, changes to the traffic system, a review of hostel accommodation for 16- to 18-year- olds, investigations of misuse of city property, and a review of the police strategy in dealing with prostitution.

However, the document fell short of an outright backing for Dutch-style 'zones of tolerance' outside residential areas.

Although councillors publicly denied that the report was a fudge on a controversial issue, privately there was relief that the committee had not given the full council an ultimatum in attempting to solve the Balsall Heath problem.

Alan Blumenthal, chairman of the Conservative group on the Labour-controlled council, described zones of tolerance as a 'dangerous experiment' that had not been sufficiently thought through.

Instead, he suggested that street cameras should be installed in the area 'as quickly as possible'.

There was agreement among the committee that merely 'moving the prostitution problem elsewhere' was not a solution. The problem of kerb-crawling and street walkers, according to one councillor, was not confined to Birmingham but was becoming a national illness.

The committee chairman, Bill Gray, said that the city council nevertheless had to face a community in the Balsall Heath suburb that had said: 'Enough'. Four weeks ago, the predominantly Pakistani Muslim community - which accounts for 80 per cent of those living in Balsall Heath - set up their own vigilante patrols. Hand-painted billboards told kerb-crawlers that their car numbers would be taken down and sent to the police.

The short-term effects of the community 'pickets' has been a reduction in the numbers of streetwalkers, normally a routine feature of street corners in Balsall Heath.

However, Mr Blumenthal told the committee that there was concern that innocent passers-by had been harassed by the pickets.

He asked: 'What is worse, no prostitutes, or the innocent suffering?'

The response of the council committee, which at one point appeared to be seriously considering the authorised red light zones last night, appeared to come as no surprise to some of the prostitutes working in Balsall Heath. One said: 'This trade has been here longer than those councillors. If it leaves it'll be because the money has gone out of it, not because of any zones they try and get us into.'

Leading article, page 14

(Photograph omitted)