Reply from Ben Van Der Velde, Green Party Candidate for Camden Town/Primrose Hill, Stand Up Comic on 28th March 2014:
I hope this finds you well. I thought I’d send you a quick email in praise of busking and spontaneous, peripatetic street culture, since it appears your inbox has been somewhat lacking in these of late. Happily I can say that I am emphatically in favour of busking remaining free and unlicensed within Camden.
I’ve been a proud resident of Camden Town for almost four years and before that a constant visitor for a further twelve. Like many people around the world I have visited Camden based on its reputation as a worldwide hub for music and musicians – chief amongst these the many talented buskers who play on the streets. Whether these are professional performers or talented amateurs learning their trade, they have been a key part of giving Camden a heart, soul and voice. When I first arrived in London at the age of 14 with a rucksack on my back and battered guitar case by my side I found myself at a loose end and so sat down outside the tube station, took out my guitar and played. Not in hope of financial reward – just to entertain myself, get better at an instrument which I loved and raise a smile or two from passers-by. It was a harmless, creative act which I remember fondly. And an act which now, thanks to some of the most bizarre and blinkered legislating I’ve encountered, would have been criminal.
For reasons best known to yourself and some other members of Camden Council you have reacted to the complaints of a tiny minority of residents by making it an illegal act to play ‘unlicensed music’ in the streets. Whilst it appears you have the best interests of the residents at heart I really don’t think you have acted as responsible politicians – balancing the needs of various parties and coming to a fair compromise. Instead you have grossly punished a majority of sensitive, thoughtful, law-abiding buskers for the actions of a rogue few who – as I’m sure you’re tired of hearing by now – could easily be dealt with using current Environmental Protection Act 1990 and Control of Pollution Act 1974. In addition, sixteen years of visiting Camden have shown me that even with amplification, buskers have to work pretty hard to overcome the noises of traffic, roadworks, music from shops and stalls, people talking and shouting in the street and the general hubbub of daily life in NW1. If you’re going to single out buskers then I think you might have to ask everyone else I’ve just listed to keep it down a bit too.
I’m sure there are genuine concerns about the use of amplification for instruments or backing tracks for rappers and beatboxers. Equally I share your concern about repetitive busking, or people playing music at anti-social hours. But that simply is no justification for making a young musician wait a few weeks for their application to be approved when they pluck up the courage to take to the streets for the first time and play a song. Instead it should be a clear indicator that buskers, residents and businesses need to engage in greater dialogue to come to an agreement on a best practice guide. If it can happen in Liverpool, York and countless other parts of the country, then why not in Camden, a place that many people consider to be the nation’s home of live music?
Your comparison to licensing smoking in bars or driving cars (and I have to admit at this point to having a had a cheeky look at your reply to my new mate Jonny Walker’s email) is hilariously wide of the mark. One is the licensing of an unhealthy activity in a private space, the other the necessary precaution needed when putting an adult in control of a potentially dangerous vehicle. Unless you take the words on Woody Guthrie’s guitar – “This machine kills fascists” – a little bit too literally, I don’t think you can club musical instruments along with the first two.
Busking is an impromptu and life-giving art form which creates an immediate and unique connection between performer and audience/passers-by in a way that few other ways of self-expression do. If you spent an afternoon out with a couple of buskers (and maybe you did – it would seem the sensible thing to do when concocting a policy such as this one) I strongly doubt you would have seen much antipathy towards them. Whenever I have seen Camden’s buskers impact on the public I’ve witnessed either the classic London “I’m blocking out all external stimuli” walk, or a little smile and swing in the step. To say that you have had few letters of support from Camden residents is tad disingenuous I feel – the very nature of busking means that buskers are getting tens or even hundreds of messages of support a day in the form of coppers, silvers and even the odd note dropped for them by happy visitors to and residents of Camden, rather than formal letters.
Still, you did say you were lacking some of those letters, so here’s one for you. I hope you like it. Also – and you might be aware of this already – I feel so passionately about this that I’ve decided to stand for the Green Party on this issue in Camden Town and Primrose Hill ward. This is my first foray into any form of politics in my life, so there’s always the chance that I’ve got this horribly wrong. But from what I understand and what I have witnessed, the council and the courts have got this horribly wrong in almost every way and I look forward to the policy being reversed and a more honest, genuine dialogue occurring with the busking community in the future.
All the best,
Ben Van der Velde
Dear Mr Walker,I do not share our criticism about the new entertainment policy, but I perfectly understand your frustration.
You have tried to stop this policy both before and after its approval, with the same exact arguments that you repeat in your letter, and you failed.
You failed to organise a big negative response to the public consultation.
You failed to persuade Councillors with your deputations at the different meetings (Committee, Cabinet, Council) that approved the policy.
You failed to challenge the new policy in Court.
And, last but not least, you are now failing in your attempt to attack the local Labour Councillors for the leaflet we delivered to residents.
Despite the organised campaign asking people to write to us (see for instance the blog by Hamish Birchall onhttp://livemusicexchange.org/
You are the first resident of Camden to contact me AGAINST this issue since we delivered that leaflet (and -can I say it?- you do not live in, or close to, an area interested by “extreme busking”!)
On the contrary, I keep meeting local residents and business owners that express their support for what we did.
You don’t need to see any big conspiracy theory behind Simon Pitkeathley’s statement: businesses in Camden are supportive of the policy! And consequently their organisation expressed the support (and you should appreciate they did it at the end of a legal challenge between the Copuncil and your organisation, in order not to interfere with the legal process)
As for the allegation that the three Councillors members of the board where able to steer the position of CTU, it is such a ridiculous thing! You must have a great opinion of myself (and Theo and Chris) if you really think that three local politicians are able to force businesses to approve something that is against their own interest…
Despite your misleading campaign, local residents and businesses understand that the new policy is not a “criminalisation” – do you consider a criminalisation” asking people to have a licence when they drive their car? The maximum punishment can be a prison sentence: isn’t this an attack on the freedom of movement?!
And what about the “draconian” ban on smoking in pubs? Does it mean that is a criminal offence to smoke? Or that you will be fined for entering a pub with a pack of cigarettes in your pocket?
People and businesses understand that the new policy is not a brutal limitation of your freedom of expression – what would you think will happen if tomorrow at 3 in the night I would walk the streets of Pimlico, with my megaphone in one hand, shouting messages of protest against the Russian aggression against Ukraine?
The Police would stop me -and rightly!
Of course, it would be different f I organise a silent candlelight vigil outside the Russian Embassy.
So, yes, there are different degrees of freedom of expression, as my individual rights cannot be in contrast with other people’s rights, and should be exert in a balanced way!
Since we had this conversation several times before, it seems to me that you do not listen to other people’s arguments, being them the local residents, the Councillors, or even Mrs Justice Patterson!, and carry on “singing your tune” (on criminalisation and freedom of expression) that has nothing to do with the aim and the contents of our new Street Entertainment Policy.
Councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli
Camden Town with Primrose Hill ward
On Monday, in the company of around forty other people, I played my acoustic guitar, sang songs and made a joyful sound on a cheap kazoo in the shared public spaces of Camden Town as part of a protest against Camden’s contentious new busking laws which sees all ‘unlicensed’ performances of live music in Camden’s streets cast as a CRIMINAL offences, punishable by fines up to £1000, the seizure of instruments and their sale to pay the fine if unpaid after 28 days. The Old Bill were strangely absent from our musical protest, which even included some Spanish tourists dancing to the sound of kazoos in a rousing rendition of Blake’s magnificent surrealist opus ‘Jerusalem’. Later on that evening, when the crowds had long since dispersed, I took out my guitar once more on the streets of Camden and accompanied myself on the kazoo in an extremely moving rendition (to me at least) of ‘Amazing Grace’. The appreciative smiles of the passersby only served to sadden me because I realised most of them had no idea of the grave threat that now hangs over the future of Camden’s vibrant and diverse street culture scene.
Writing as a Labour Party member, I was shocked and saddened to hear of an election leaflet recently placed into circulation by the ruling Labour Group in Camden which grandiosely (not to say also erroneously) proclaimed to have effected ‘an end to sleepless nights in Camden’ on account of the High Court’s recent decision to rule the new street entertainment policy as lawful. In 2012-2013 it stated that there was a tenfold increase in the number of complaints made about busking in the Borough of Camden compared to the year before. Leaving aside the once-in-a-generation event of the London Olympics in 2012, this ‘ten fold’ increase saw busking complaints rise from 0.2 % of the total complaints about noise in the Borough to just over 2% of total noise complaints in the borough (And this in exceptional and unrepeatable circumstances). 98% of noise complaints in Camden did not relate to busking and yet, by some strange alchemy election leaflets have appeared claiming to have eliminated ‘sleepless nights’ in Camden because of the unprecedented clamp down upon street culture on the part of the ruling Labour Group. Have you eliminated noise from traffic, road works, noisy neighbours, dogs barking, licensed venues, shops blaring out loud music? Of course not, yet these are the sources of around 98% of noise complaints in Camden. You will forgive me, and many others, for remaining distinctly unimpressed at this sleight of the statistical hand and brazen attempt to play crude electoral politics with an unprecedented assault upon cultural freedoms in Camden.
I’m also extremely concerned that Camden Town Unlimited, having remained strangely silent on the busking initiative throughout the controversy leading up to the High Court challenge, chose the aftermath of that decision to issue a public statement welcoming the new policy uncritically, with Simon Pitkeathley the Chief Executive saying,
“We welcome this initiative. Busking has always been a part of Camden Town and this will allow it to continue in a way that works for businesses and residents alike”
How will introducing the second most restrictive busking law in modern UK history serve Camden Town Unlimited’s stated aim of, “Positioning Camden Town a global centre for Creative Industries”? What kind of message do you think welcoming this policy sends to the creative and musical communities of Camden? How exactly will the threat of a criminal record, and instrument confiscations “allow” busking to continue? Which residents and businesses is Simon Pitkeathley speaking on behalf of? Is it the policy of Camden Town Unlimited to support the criminalisation of grassroots culture whilst at the same time building its identity on Camden’s deserved international reputation as a culture-led economy? I am also concerned that three elected politicians who strongly supported the new busking law (Councillors Blackwell, Naylor and Pietragnoli) sit on the board of this organization as does Penny Mills, the Chief Inspector of Police whose completely unsubstantiated claim that busking causes ‘opportunities for organized criminal networks’ to congregate in Camden Town was a centerpiece of the evidential case for the new legislation. With a visitor and cultural economy strongly based upon Camden’s reputation as a prime destination for live music and the arts, why does Camden Town Unlimited adopt a position of antagonism towards the grassroots cultural communities that directly contribute towards its colour and vibrancy? With a tag line like ‘Run By Business for Business’ those who value Camden’s ability to sustain cultural diversity are entitled to ask serious questions about precisely whose interests Camden Town Unlimited, and the elected members that sit on its board, are serving.
In an hysterical rhetorical whirlpool which can see prospective parliamentary Labour candidates compare buskers in Council Meetings to oligarchical press barons in their resistance to the ‘light touch’ regulation of the state, I admit it can be hard to maintain a sense of proportion and perspective. Nonetheless, I submit to you, that, the judgment of Mrs Justice Patterson notwithstanding, your street entertainment policy is an unwarranted intrusion into the vibrant and diverse cultural life of the Borough of Camden. In your policy, you grant blanket exemptions for music that is part of religious services or processions, which is a welcome recognition of the importance of music as an expression of people’s most deeply held beliefs. Yet we live in an age where many people don’t hold formal religious beliefs. For many, music itself is an expression of their desire to be understood and to understand. Music making is a communal activity with a psychological, social and cultural dimension which is just as important for non-believers as religious services are to followers of organised religion. Yet Camden protects religious freedoms and completely disregards (and hugely undervalues) cultural freedoms which are just as important. In the recent High Court hearing Camden’s Barrister argued that the Article 10 rights of buskers were engaged at a ‘low level’ implying that there was something trivial about freedom of expression in relation to playing music on the streets. Whilst Mrs Justice Patterson seemingly agreed with Camden’s assessment, many found her judgment highly troubling in its implications,
Robin Bynoe, a flautist, lawyer and consultant with M Law LLP commented:
‘What an extraordinary idea that musical performance, because it is “not akin to political speech”, is apparently of much less significance in the great scheme of things and therefore protected by Article 10 only “at a low level”. This seems to reflect nothing more than the cultural priorities of the judge; and I would disagree. Buskers do more to enhance the even flow of outdoor social life than political speakers (who unlike buskers are better kept indoors; even the good ones). It is no accident that after six hundred and thirty eight years we still celebrate the Pied Piper of Hamlin but the Town Clerk is forgotten.’
As you will be aware, the Keep Streets Live Campaign profoundly disagreed with the judgment of the High Court and has sought leave to appeal from the Court of Appeal. We asked Camden to delay the implementation of their policy pending the outcome of the legal process but they declined which leaves us in a position where the situation on the ground for would be buskers is highly uncertain and problematic. We don’t believe that music-makers should face criminal sanctions on account of the instrument they are playing or whether they hold the correct ‘license’. Therefore we have publicly advised all buskers and musicians NOT to sign up to Camden’s scheme, but to join us in protesting against it.
Meanwhile we have been watching the HS2 debate with some interest. The disruption to Camden that would be caused by this infrastructure project would dwarf that of even the most ‘extreme’ unlicensed busker and all who care about the well-being of Camden are united in their opposition to these plans in their current form. Decisions have been made by a central authority and imposed upon an area with inadequate consultation and participation amongst the people it affects the most. When Sarah Hayward warned HS2 not to ‘’impose” a design for Euston Station without giving local authorities a say and expressed disappointment that HS2 were not going to be involved in the working group set up to influence policy, the Keep Streets Live Campaign had every sympathy with her plight, and yet Camden fail to see that this is exactly what they themselves have done with their buskers. Despite our frequent entreaties to the Council to work with us in a collaborative approach as we are doing in Liverpool to design a policy based upon consent and mutuality they have seen fit to impose a regime upon buskers which has no support from any bodies that represent musicians and the wider cultural community, and in fact is backed by only 55 residents who answered the consultation, a consultation where the majority of the 155 people who answered (55%) were actually against the policy Camden have introduced.
Camden Council have held the entire busking community responsible for the irresponsible actions of a small minority whose behaviour was already illegal under existing powers. It is also unclear whether they have exercised the full extent of their existing powers to deal with genuine noise nuisance caused by busking. Members concerned about the spiralling cost of the street entertainment policy would do well to ask Helen Masterton your principal Environmental Health Officer how many noise abatement notices Camden issued against buskers in the time leading up to the introduction of this policy particularly given that is likely that many complaints about noise related to the same buskers who could have been dealt with using a noise abatement notice? Ms Masterton presented evidence in the High Court suggesting that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 was inadequate for the management of noise caused from busking, despite the fact that this act allows pre-emptive noise abatement notices to be served where noise nuisance is believed to be likely, as well as making provision for the seizure of musical instruments IF a statutory nuisance has been demonstrated. The Environmental Protection Act is used by local authorities across the UK to deal with noise complaints about busking with well-publicized noise abatement notices have been issued to performers in Oxford and Cardiff where the ensuing publicity leaves performers in no doubt that councils have the powers they need to respond to noise complaints. In addition, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 makes it an offence to use loudspeakers in the street after 9pm. Given that Camden’s main concern is the use of amplifiers late in the evening it must be asked why they have not been using their existing powers to manage ‘extreme’ busking? Why does Camden feel the need to license unamplified singing by claiming, as Tony Hawke’s Witness Statement maintained that the human voice box itself is a form of amplification? Whilst I understand that the sweeping pre-emptive powers of Camden’s busking law might be, on paper, more convenient than the judicious use of existing laws, that is in no way to imply that they are justified or desirable.
The Keep Streets Live Campaign has a genuine desire to work alongside the local authority to design a policy that enables the council to take appropriate action against those individuals that cause genuine issues whilst enabling a spontaneous and flourishing street culture scene to continue. In Liverpool we are actually working alongside the Council, Merseyside Police and the City BID to design and implement a policy that has the consent and input of all whom it affects. We strongly support the right (indeed the responsibility) of Councils to take enforcement action against individuals who cause genuine issues. However we will not, and cannot support a catch-all policy that pre-emptively criminalises anybody who wishes to share their music in the public spaces of Camden without subjecting themselves to a highly intrusive and bureaucratic process of licensing that discriminates wholesale against entire classes of instruments as well as individuals without the means to pay for such a license.
Camden Council, the message from the Keep Streets Live Campaign is simple:
Camden’s vibrant and diverse street culture scene is one of the things that gives it its unique zest and vitality. It needs to preserved and cherished and not stamped out. We want to work with you to, so, please, stop working against us! Until you take up our offer of collaboration we will continue our principled and steadfast opposition to your damaging and coercive busking law,
With kind regards,
Founding Director of the Keep Streets Live Campaign