Stealing the Beats from Merseyside’s Streets

Stealing the Beats from Merseyside’s Streets

First published on the 9th August 2012 at The Guardian

Liverpool’s spontaneous street culture is being eroded under the banner of ‘business improvement’


 
Photo: Fulla T

 

Up and down the country, corporate bodies called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are increasingly administering urban centres, offering their paying members privileged access to unelected officials who are literally ‘on call’ to take their grievances directly to policy makers. In the case of Liverpool City Council’s recent decision to regulate busking and street entertainment, we find a lesson in the pitfalls of charging unnaccountable bodies with directing democracy on the public’s behalf.

Would-be performers in Liverpool city centre must now sign up to a mandatory licensing scheme and obtain a photo ID card before they can book a two hour slot to play in council-designated pitches. The scheme requires that entertainers be bound by a number of restrictive terms and conditions. These range from entertainers being forbidden to sit on the floor or occupy a pitch more than 1.5 metres in a diameter, to a clause granting council officials the right to stop a performance purely on the grounds of personal taste – turning enforcement officers into what one busker describes as “a poor man’s Simon Cowell”. Any person failing to comply with these terms and conditions will be issued with a letter threatening prosecution for trespass.

In essence, Liverpool’s policy is an attempt to bring busking and street performance under the remit of the 2003 Licensing Act, despite clear statements published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2006 that busking is not a licensable activity under that legislation. The legally-questionable nature of Liverpool’s policy does not end there, for it attempts to make it an offence for anybody under the age of 18 to busk, despite central government guidelines clearly stating that busking is permitted for anybody over the age of 14.

Accounts from buskers suggest that the policy was pushed through council meetings, with their recommendations flatly ignored. Jonny Walker, a Liverpool-born busker and singer-songwriter, was involved in the council’s consultation process:

I was invited by officials to look at the proposed policy. I had major issues with it and was asked to prepare a report with suggestions for how to improve it. My report was ignored and no changes were made to the policy which was then rubber stamped at a council meeting.

Once he realized his views had not been taken into account in the finished policy, Walker started a petition which has garnered more than 3,000 signatures to date and launched a campaign to urge the council to rethink its policy. The campaign has gained the backing of the Musician’s Union.

Diane Widdison, national organiser of the union, has said that Liverpool City Council did not consult them regarding the new policy:

The Musician’s Union are happy to help the council put together a best practice guide for buskers. We would suggest a working party which includes street artists and performers so we can agree on a guide which is acceptable to both sides. We do not agree with making the process overly bureaucratic or too restrictive for no good reason.

Liverpool city council responds:

In essence, we are trying to balance the needs of all the people who use the city centre – shoppers, visitors, people who work there and buskers.

While there may be claims that there is a lot of opposition to the policy, it has also been welcomed by many people, especially on grounds of reducing noise and ending repetitive songs.

The council adds that the idea is also to be being fairer to all buskers and potential buskers by preventing the same ones hogging pitches for hours on end.

It is also important to note that the policy will be reviewed in three months and a panel including buskers, representatives from the musician unions and other interested parties will meet before the end of August to discuss the policy.

The council stresses that the regulations are not an attempt to stop busking, but to provide a balance between the different people using the city.

The elected member in charge of the policy, Coun Steve Munby, Liverpool’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods, has claimed that the policy was crafted to deal with the many complaints the council receives from businesses and shoppers about noise levels, repetitive performances and the number of buskers at certain times.

 

Ged and Jonny debate the issue.

Munby says that buskers add “animation and colour to the centre” but on some Saturdays, there have been 12 performers in a short stretch of Church Street competing “in effect for limited cash.” He added that having a regulated system for street entertainment is in the best interests of buskers, businesses, shoppers and other city centre users and brings Liverpool into line with other major cities.

Ged Gibbons, CEO of Liverpool’s City Central BID and champion of the new policy, says:

This new busking policy is hugely welcome and will make a real difference to the vibrancy of the city centre

and has claimed to have received regular telephone complaints from the likes of M&S and Primark about troublesome buskers. In the same vein, minutes from the council Cabinet’s agenda in which the policy’s terms and conditions can be found, describe the policy as crafted to deal with long-standing “complaints from businesses, residents and others”.

However, information acquired under Freedom of Information legislation shows that as of November 2011 the number of city shopkeepers who formally complained to the Council to regulate buskers/street performers was so low that the council themselves do not bother to record complaints:

[…] due to the immediate nature of the complaint the majority of complainants simply draw the matter to our street Nuisance Officers but do not formally complain. Subsequently the licensing department do not formally record the number of complaints they receive regarding buskers/street performers.

And why do affected retailers not formally complain? The answer, in short, is that they do not need to. That is what Liverpool’s City Central BID is for.

Around 650 businesses currently make up the BID, and each pays a levy on top of their business rates to fund it. Besides extra cleaning, care and security, this levy effectively grants businesses an amplified voice in local democracy. Like BIDs in other British cities, Liverpool’s is a quasi-governmental corporate body which works with local authorities, but is not wholly accountable to them. Karen Lappin, Store Manager for Liverpool’s Blacks, explains what you get with membership into Liverpool’s City Central BID:

Ged [Gibbons] will come round, one of the team will come round, and they’ll sit down and ask how they can help you.

Critics of the new busking policy argue that with its access to policymakers, Liverpool’s City Central BID has hastily embarked upon the needless regulation of Liverpool’s street performance culture under the banner of ‘business improvement’.

ASAP! and the ‘Simon Cowell clause’

ASAP! and the ‘Simon Cowell clause’

Photo: pj_in_oz.

As the assembled crowd sang along at the ecstatic climax of Hey Jude, it was absurd to think that what we were doing was now technically criminal.

So observed Tom George about the campaign’s first ‘celebratory busk’ in a recent article in Seven Streets. Tom has been busy promoting the campaign, appearing most recently on Bido-Lito’s recent podcast to give his views. Skip to the 14:40 mark to listen:

Being the humble and obliging fellow that he is, Tom has given us permission to correct him on a small, but common, inaccuracy about the true nature of Liverpool’s policy: The so-called ‘Simon Cowell clause’ does not require performers to pass a formal X-Factor-like audition before they are granted a license. What the clause in question does state, however, is that police and enforcement officers are now entitled to stop performers on the grounds of taste alone. If they don’t like what they see or here, in others words, they now have the power to move performers on, potentially turning officials into a “poor man’s Simon Cowell”. Contrary to Ged Gibbon’s condescending insistence that the policy is about helping buskers, this clause would be the death of street performance in Liverpool.

But there was much truth is Tom’s article, much that we would do well to bear in mind three weeks after the policy’s introduction:

If we are to achieve a repeal of this law, it is vitally important for the campaign to build momentum from here on. A street performers’ group is being established that will give us the collective voice and weight to negotiate with council when they realise that street performers are not going to kowtow to their autocratic ways.

And what, you ask, is this group? The Association of Street Artists and Performers (ASAP!) launches this week.

Get in touch to find our how you can get involved!

More Media from Monday’s Celebratory Busk

More Media from Monday’s Celebratory Busk

Photo: Christian Eriksson.

April Armstrong–Bascombe from the excellent Seven Streets reported on the detrimental social and human cost of this policy’s implementation (‘Busker’s Fear End of Liverpool’s Street Culture‘). Armstrong–Bascombe spoke to performers whose livelihoods stand to be decimated by the new policy, an aspect of the policy which mainstream media outlets have thus far failed to recognise.

Bay TV sent their film crew to report on Monday’s celebration (‘Buskers take streets back in protest at new legislation‘). Unlike a similar report for BBC North West Tonight, Bay TV did not shy away from tackling the many real issues at the heart of Liverpool City Council’s absurd new policy.

The blogosphere was also alight, with standout reportage from Richard MacDonald and Matt Swift. It’s the continual support of individual bloggers like these which will really help to keep Liverpool’s streets live!

And a last big thanks to the MerseyMongoose for the following video, which accurately captures many of the performances of the day (but viewers beware: The views expressed by individual performers do not reflect those of ASAP! or the KeepStreetsLive! campaign as a whole):