It has been an eventful few days for the Keep Streets Live campaign. The weekend began early on Friday with a hearing in the High Court, where Liverpool City Council undertook to refrain from enforcing their contentious Street Entertainment Terms and Conditions against the buskers of Liverpool pending a review. The support of Kirwans solicitors has given this campaign real teeth and has helped show the Council that they are not above the law and are accountable to the people for the decisions that they make. It was very important to get this result ahead of the annual Mathew Street festival which has traditionally been one of the best times of the year for Liverpool’s street performers, but has seen Liverpool City Council take an increasingly hard line against buskers in recent years in the name of ‘elf and safety concerns. This year, we were determined, was to be different.
The Association of Street Artists and Performers (ASAP!) printed out ‘Busk Cards’ with advice about the law, how to speak to officials if asked to move on, and provided Kirwans Solicitors 24 hour emergency helpline in case of any legal problems. We distributed these widely amongst the street performing community in Liverpool ahead of the August Bank Holiday. I got up at the crack of dawn on Sunday 26th August, day one of the Mathew Street festival, and made my way down to Church Street to look for a senior police officer. Having found one, I made him aware of the High Court ruling and also informed him that all the buskers had received advice about their legal rights. I explained that all we wanted was to be able to entertain the many visitors to Liverpool without fear of arrest or harassment. He was sympathetic to what I had to say, but then again, the police are usually too busy, ahem, fighting crime, to worry about buskers. It’s usually only at the Council’s behest that they ever go after street performers, and the High Court undertakings put paid to that.
I set up my gear outside HSBC on Lord Street and got ready to entertain the crowds, only to be stopped by a council official who told me I was performing in the Mathew Street festival’s ‘footprint’, and would have to move on for health and safety reasons. Given that the nearest staged event was about four streets away, I thought his concerns, though touching, were unnecessary and I politely told him so. It seems that the Mathew Street festival’s ‘footprint’ is rather large, encompassing, as it does, almost the entirety of Liverpool City Centre. Seeking to control every aspect of what happens in a public space as large as that is a big undertaking, and it would seem to be most sensible to not waste too much time chasing street performers away during an outdoor street festival, and instead to concentrate on issues of genuine public safety. When I showed the official a copy of the High Court documents he suddenly lost interest in asking me to move on in any event, and I was finally free to start singing and playing.
The weather was kind to us on Sunday, and people from all over the world stopped, listened to and watched the various impromptu busking performances on display as they made their way between the main stages of the festival. We had a few disturbing reports of council officials harassing some buskers, but there were many more street performers than in previous years, a fact we at Keep Streets Live can only attribute to the Kirwan’s backed legal action we took against the Council. It was a legal action made necessary by the perverse mentality that sees busking as a threat to public order instead of as an enhancement to the culture of the streets. It is the same mindset that sees busking as a health and safety hazard in the world’s most famous music city, but allows the widespread consumption of alcohol by the multitudes in public spaces during the festival, despite the havoc this always predictably causes. Buskers make the streets safer by mediating a calming and reassuring presence to passersby, and by being an extra pair of eyes on the streets. Predictably there were NO problems involving buskers throughout the Mathew Street festival. Equally predictably there were MANY problems involving extremely drunk people. Funny that.
Monday was the much-anticipated final day of the weekend’s events, ‘A celebration of Merseybeat’, and I plonked myself at the bottom of Button Street, a hundred yards or so away from the Cavern, in eager anticipation of the final day of the festival. I noticed it was raining a little, and so I set up my stuff beneath a shop’s overhang to keep dry. At around ten in the morning I was flabbergasted to be told that the entire day’s program of outdoor events had been cancelled due to the weather and our old friend, ‘elf and safety. Wendy Simon, cabinet member for Leisure and Tourism summed up the risk-averse approach of the Council and Mathew Street festival organisers when she said,
‘We just couldn’t take the risk of going ahead…there was just too much of a risk that someone could get hurt’.
To us at Keep Streets Live it just seemed like another faintly miserable English summer’s day, entirely predictable, and all the more so for being on an August bank holiday. Before too long the rain had cleared away and the winds died down, and thousands of mystified people wandered the streets of Liverpool wondering why an entire festival had been cancelled on account of a bracing sea breeze. Woodstock it was not! Fortunately, more then a few buskers braved the elements and entertained the crowds for free. Had it not been for Keep Streets Live and Kirwans there would have been no outdoor music at all on Monday, a tragedy for the many thousands who had travelled from all over the world to be there. We are glad that buskers can still be spontaneous and just set up and play, even in the face of a bit of drizzle. We are still waiting for our thank you from Claire McColgan, director of culture at the council for our performances, provided at very short notice, entirely free of charge, and without the need for a health and safety assessment or events coordinator. The powers that be have clearly missed a trick by not inviting buskers to be a much more active part of the festival. We hope that our hardy and resilient presence on the streets on Monday was a wake up call to Liverpool City Council for them to realize the many benefits of a vibrant and living street culture, and that they will now start to cherish it and stop trying to stamp it out.
Whilst we welcome Liverpool City Council’s decision to suspend their busking Terms and Conditions with immediate effect, we are in no doubt that it is the prospect of a Judicial Review that has focussed their minds. As the overly hasty cancellation of Monday’s outdoor events demonstrates too well, the council does not have a good track record in dealing with those things that fall outside of its direct control like the weather, volcanic ash clouds, and, oh yes, buskers! But, believe it or not, great things can often happen if you only step back and let them. Liverpool was the launchpad for a musical revolution that still echoes around the world today. It is no surprise that people come from all over the globe to visit this wonderful, diverse and exciting city. We want these visitors, and the people of Liverpool alike, to walk down streets filled with life, filled with colour and filled with music. These are challenging enough times for all of us already without the added burden of ill-thought out, absurd and draconian restrictions on street culture. We are certain that the local authority and the police have many more important issues to be focussing their time and efforts upon. We are glad that Liverpool City Council, albeit under strong legal pressure, has now suspended their busking policy pending the prospective judicial review. Keep Streets Live now joins David Kirwan in calling on them to take the final step, and to drop it all together. Then, and only then, we look forward to working with them, with the help of the Musician’s Union, on a genuinely collaborative busking policy that brings people together and enhances the life of the great city of Liverpool.