Criminalising Culture in Leicester Square

Criminalising Culture in Leicester Square

Westminster Council-stop the prosecution of young musician Dan Wilson aka ‘Dawson’, support your street artists.

On Wednesday 20th August at 10am a talented young musician who has represented Great Britain in the world loop championships (http://youtu.be/Zh2gvYsWZP4) appeared in court in Westminster answering criminal charges of ‘illegal street trading’ and using a speaker in the street for a 10 minute busk in Leicester Square early this year with a couple of CDs of his own music with a sign saying ‘suggested donation £5’ and giving details of his Facebook page. This was his fourth court appearance relating to this one incident of spontaneous live music and he now faces a fifth court hearing in November.

If convicted this graduate of Leeds College of Music will have a life-long criminal record which will affect his ability to travel aboard, an essential part of life as a touring musician, and face heavy fines.

Westminster Council’s determination to prosecute Dawson comes against a backdrop of the Mayor of London’s #backbusking campaign launched in April with the intention of making London ‘the most busker-friendly city in the world’. Boris Johnson has convened a task force designed to remove obstacles to performing in the capital city which includes Westminster Council, the Musician’s Union and the Keep Streets Live Campaign. Despite this, Westminster Council have decided to spend thousands of pounds on a heavy handed criminal prosecution against Dawson perhaps to make an example of him lest any other musician decides to commit the ‘crime’ of playing music in Leicester Square. The extravagant waste of scarce public resources involved in using the police and courts to criminalise an activity which actually brings colour and enjoyment to the streets of our cities is very troubling

If you share the view of the Keep Streets Live Campaign that this protracted prosecution is a scandalous misuse of public time and money and that it represents a campaign of legal harassment against a promising young musician please email the cabinet member for Public Protection at Westminster Nickie Aiken on naiken@westminster.gov.uk and also the Head of Legal and Democratic services at Westminster Peter Large on plarge@westminster.gov.uk who, bizarrely, maintains that it is in the ‘public interest’ to spend thousands of pounds prosecuting Dawson. Politely point out to them that it serves no ones interest to criminalise culture and that the public don’t need protection from music makers who are bringing enjoyment and colour to public spaces.

In response to emails they received when this news went public, Joseph McBride, Cabinet Officer for Communications and Strategy for Westminster stated that ‘…street performance can give rise to real problems for local residents and businesses and in such cases it may be necessary to ask buskers who are causing a public nuisance [emphasis mine] to desist and, in exceptional circumstances [emphasis mine] make use of our legal powers as a last resort’.

Dawson had never performed in Westminster before and only played for a matter of minutes on the evening he was challenged. He is an accomplished musician and was not causing any nuisance, so why is he being targeted?

Metropolitan Police have justified police action against buskers in Leicester Square by claiming that ‘Spontaneous, unauthorised, unlicensed street performing causes anti-social behaviour and is a driver of crime’. Repeated requests for evidence of this claim under the Freedom of Information Act have been fruitless. However, it may be of interest to note that recent police crackdowns on buskers in Leicester Square, including the well publicised arrest of The King’s Parade, winners of the Mayor’s GIGS competition to find ‘ London’s best buskers’ have been partly funded by Heart of London Business Improvement District, picking and choosing legislation to use against buskers on an arbitrary basis. This is a troubling example of private interests hijacking civic and cultural freedoms. On its website the Heart of London BID states that it promises  ‘quality, licensed street entertainment’ but Westminster do not issue busking licenses resulting in the absurd situation where award winning musicians who have represented the UK internationally are criminalised under the pretense of targeting antisocial behaviour. This is a Kafka-esque farce in which the police claim, entirely without evidence, that unlicensed busking causes anti-social behaviour in which a private company funds police action against buskers whilst claiming to support ‘quality, licensed entertainment’ and in which Westminster Council do not even issue licenses for busking so that even if a musician wished to obtain one, they couldn’t! London can, and must, do better by its musicians and culture makers if it wishes to avoid a descent into a dull, authoritarian conformity on its streets.

 

Busking and Public Space Protection Orders

Busking and Public Space Protection Orders

The Keep Streets Live Campaign is a not for profit organisation that advocates for public spaces that are open to informal offerings of art and music. We are concerned that the provisions in the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 for local authorities to apply for Public Spaces Protection Orders to restrict ‘activities that carried out within the authorities area which have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’ could easily be used to target buskers. The ‘reasonable grounds’ for introducing these new powers are so wide-ranging, all-encompassing and open to subjective interpretation that they might well be used to target informal performances of art and music on the grounds that some people don’t like buskers and find them annoying. In a House of Lords debate on January 21st Lord Clement-Jones, author of the Live Music Act 2012, sought reassurances from the government that the new legislation would not be used in an over-zealous way against musicians and street artists. Lord Clement-Jones asked ‘will local authorities ensure that these powers are exercised with proper consideration of the balance between freedom of expression and respect for private and family life, and will also point out the considerable existing body of nuisance and noise-abatement powers which local authorities already have to hand? Should we not be encouraging rather than discouraging busking, which is such an important part of our urban culture?’ The government response from Lord Taylor of Holbeach was that the legislation is aimed at ‘the antisocial minority who give street performers a bad name’. However, given that there is no requirement for judicial pre-authorisation for these new powers, they are wide open to abuse and the problems of differentiating between ‘the antisocial minority’ and ‘genuine performers’ are manifold.

 

In Birmingham buskers have been given letters stating that from October 2014 the police and local authority can apply for PSPOs against buskers and implying that these powers will be used if buskers don’t sign up to an extensive range of restrictions such as auditions, pre-booking only authorised spots and strict time limits on pitches. In this way PSPOs become a covert way of restricting freedom of expression under the pretense of protecting the quality of life of those in the locality. In reality local authorities have an enormous range of existing statutory powers which can be used to target noise nuisance and antisocial behaviour such as the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Public Order 1986. These new, additional powers have great potential for abuse and misuse and will need to be closely scrutinised in their application and challenged when necessary to ensure that vitally important civic and cultural freedoms are not lost with all the adverse implications for a free and democratic society.

Liverpool Leads the Way

Liverpool Leads the Way

Two years is a long time in street politics

What a difference a couple of years makes!

In the summer of 2012 Liverpool City Council caused consternation amongst the grassroots cultural community when they introduced a controversial busking policy placing severe restrictions on the right to perform music and art in public spaces within the city. Anybody wishing to busk in the city was to be required to pay a license and to purchase a minimum of £10 million worth of public liability insurance (Usually costing over £100). The policy included a ban on all under-18 performers and what was dubbed ‘the Simon Cowell clause’ which allowed any civic or police official the power to pull the plug on a performance on the grounds that ‘it was not of sufficient quality’. Most controversially unlicensed buskers were to be issued with threats of trespass prosecutions on the public highway for ‘unauthorised’ performances. The Keep Streets Live Campaign was born in opposition to these plans which would have made Liverpool perhaps the least-busker friendly city within the UK. Following a petition, street protests and a formal legal challenge, Liverpool Council listened to the concerns of the Keep Streets Live Campaign and dropped their old policy in September 2012.

Well over a year later in January 2014 the Keep Streets Live Campaign received an invitation from the City Council to participate in talks to design new guidance for busking in the city, this time with the full and active involvement of the wider busking community. An open invitation was issued to buskers to be part of the process and, over a period of 7 months, around 15 face to face meetings were held between buskers, the Musician’s Union, Liverpool BID Company and the City Council to produce guidance that all could agree upon.

One of the key aspects of the new guidance is the provisions for buskers to have regular open meetings both amongst the busking community and with the City Council to discuss issues as they arise. This is to help good relationships amongst buskers and to ensure that buskers and the Council remain engaged in a positive, ongoing dialogue.

Buskers will not be required to get a license before they perform in the city but instead asks them to be considerate and respectful of other users of shared public spaces, and in turn, asks businesses and public officials who have issues with buskers to let them know in a polite and considerate way. It marks a complete watershed in the way that busking is overseen within the City of Liverpool and ensures that this world famous music city is leading the way in its active encouragement of street culture.

Promoting Harmony on the Streets

The Guide to Busking in Liverpool has been produced as a joint initiative with Musicians’ Union (MU), Liverpool City Council, the Keep Streets Live Campaign and the Business Improvement District (BID).

The 12 page best practice guide advises buskers, council officers, businesses and residents on issues such as pitch selection, noise levels and the best way of resolving issues. A laminated advice card is also being produced which highlights guidance and recommendations.

This move represents a new approach to street entertainment in Liverpool. In 2012 a managed system of buskers with licensed pitches was to be introduced but was opposed by buskers and the MU and the idea was dropped.

It is anticipated that that the new guidance will help reduce the number of complaints and lead to those which continue being resolved amicably. It also sets out the procedures for enforcement should this prove necessary.

Morris Stemp, North of England Regional Organiser for the Musicians’ Union, said:

“This is a real achievement for all parties concerned, and I’d like to congratulate Liverpool City Council and the BID for engaging so actively with interested parties and organisations to be with us at the forefront of this initiative.

“The aim of the guide is to foster a vibrant street culture which allows for spontaneity whilst at the same time making provision for constructively resolving any issues that may arise using existing statutory powers, and is an example I anticipate many will want to follow. It also blows apart the myth that busking is in some way illegal.

“This is in stark contrast to some less pragmatic authorities and councils, where heavy handed regulation and over-zealous bureaucracy stifle self-expression. Buskers in Liverpool now have a guide that will help nurture music and other art forms on the streets, with all the benefits this will bring to the city, to buskers and to wider society.

“I believe that collaborations such as this, where street entertainment is rightly valued and encouraged, will be the future for busking in cities, towns and villages in this country. I would urge other authorities to follow Liverpool’s pragmatic approach and let us help them provide a landscape which nurtures the talents which our members can provide.”

Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson said;

“It represents an entirely new approach to busking in Liverpool, a city famous for its culture and music. By working together with the busking community we will bring our streets alive for the benefit of everyone.”

Councillor Steve Munby, cabinet member for neighbourhoods said:

“I think visitors to the city would be surprised and disappointed if they didn’t find a lively street music culture, given the city’s reputation. But we also know there are complaints from business and visitors about noise and obstructions so we have tried to balance the needs of all parties.

“I don’t mind making mistakes as long as we learn from them. We recognised that an imposed solution was never going to work so we have brought together a range of organisations to produce this guide. This has been a unique partnership which bodes well for the future of street entertainment. I’m really grateful to everyone who’s been involved.

“The guide sets out a positive way forward and if everybody follows the guidance in it we can have a thriving street culture based on good relationships.”

Jonny Walker, Founding director of the Keep Streets Live Campaignsaid:

“The collaborative approach that Liverpool City Council have modelled in putting together this busking guidance makes it a pioneer amongst major cities worldwide in its active support for grassroots street culture.

“The busking community has had the unique opportunity of working alongside the local authority, the BID and the Musicians’ Union to preserve the spontaneity and informality which is intrinsic to the nature of busking, whilst actively seeking to build good relationships between all those who share public space in the city. It is right that buskers should be closely involved in decisions that affect them and it is to Liverpool City Council’s immense credit that they chose to include the busking community at all stages in the production of this guidance.

“The busking community will continue to cooperate with the local authority to ensure the ongoing success of this new approach, and will hold a regular open buskers’ meeting which all are welcome to attend. We are confident that this guidance will help to harness the capacity of busking to transform the experience of shared public spaces in the city, and to continue to play its part in what makes Liverpool such a wonderful place to live, work and visit.”

Bill Addy, Chief Executive of Liverpool BID Company, said:

“We welcome the introduction of this guide. It brings some clarity as to what is expected of everyone to ensure the vibrancy of Liverpool city centre is a cause for celebration and not consternation. Street entertainment can be a huge added bonus to the appeal of a city centre and this guide is a very encouraging step forward in ensuring Liverpool gets the balance right for all parties.”

The new guidance is being introduced in September with the first open busker’s meeting due to take place on the evening of Tuesday 23rd September at 7pm at the Lomax. On behalf of the Keep Streets Live Campaign I urge everyone who cherishes Liverpool’s vibrant street culture to come along, all are welcome.

Jonny Walker

Founding director, Keep Streets Live Campaign