I am writing these words a few hours before the inaugural public performance of the Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra (CKO) on Camden High Street and a tangible feeling of Kazoo-infused excitement is rising up within me. The CKO has been formed at great haste because of Camden Council’s plans to impose a draconian license scheme for busking in shared public spaces of this great London Borough, which will give the police and council officials extraordinary powers to seize busker’s instruments, to impose fines of up to £1000 and to sell instruments if the fine is unpaid after 28 days. The central ideas of the CKO is that everybody can play the Kazoo, so it’s democratic, and everybody is welcome to join, so it is inclusive. Most importantly, if the police or council decided to try and seize an illegal Kazoo, they would,
a) Look very silly indeed
b) Be unable to stem the tide of replacement Kazoos filling the breach. At 5o-pence-a-pop they are the citizen’s choice to blow a fulsome raspberry at badly misconceived local government policies.
Camden is a Labour-led Council. A party that at a national level is presenting itself as ‘One Nation Labour’, giving a voice to the voiceless, standing alongside the dispossessed and the vulnerable and against powerful special interests that restrict freedoms and erode communities, especially the evil Tories who are privatising everything that moves. Local authority budgets have been some of the hardest hit by the austerity agenda of the Coalition Government. This year alone Camden Council are having to find ‘savings’ to the order of an incredible £83.3 million pounds from their already over-stretched budgets. These cuts will inevitably fall most heavily on those with the greatest needs: the old, the disabled, the sick, the unemployed and others who are marginalised. In this light, it is simply staggering that Labour-controlled Camden have mobilised thousands of pounds of public money in order to carry out a public consultation with a view to implementing one of the UK’s most restrictive busking policies, effectively privatising huge swathes of public space for those who wish for nothing more than the right to play music on the streets. Camden Council have attempted to cloak their decision making in a veneer of reasonableness by saying they are protecting residents who have complained about the noise that street musicians make, particularly around the tube station at the top of the high street. Apart from the fact that Camden is known for being one of the busiest and most vibrant places in London, these complaints – around 100 in total over the last 12 months in the whole of Camden – represent an insignificant fraction of the overall complaints received by the Noise Team in the whole borough, and yet the licence scheme is all-encompasing affecting every street and public space in the Borough of Camden. Research from the Live Music Forum indicates that over 90% of complaints about relate to noise from private residences and venues, not from buskers. In addition, the noise from the millions of tonnes of metal-entombed mobile internal combustion engines that roar down the street every day also comes with CO2 emissions for good measure. If the Council were really serious about controlling noise and environmental pollution they would mobilise resources against persistent noise offending venues and private residences, and consider pedestrianising the high street for the benefit of residents and visitors alike. Instead, they have decided to focus their limited resources upon a small group of individuals who are easy to scapegoat and easier still to overlook, namely, buskers!
Public and Private
By requiring would-be buskers to fork out between £30 and £123 for a license, by banning all wind and percussion instruments and amplifiers REGARDLESS of the volume they are played at or the aptitude that they are played with, Camden Council are removing any potential for spontaneity and creativity and giving the police and council officials the power to destroy the livelihoods of individuals whose only crime is trying to make an honest living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. No one is saying that buskers don’t create noise issues from time to time, but the police and council ALREADY have extensive powers to move buskers on IF they are creating a genuine nuisance. The Environmental Protection Act 1990, The Highways Act 1980 and the Public Order Act all give the police powers if they need to use them. What these laws DON’T permit is the confiscation of instruments and the arbitrary imposition of £1000 fines with the threat of selling instruments if the fines are unpaid. Even bailiffs are not permitted to confiscate the tools of a person’s trade when collecting debts for the very good reason that this will prevent them from being able to earn in the future. The powers that Camden Council are proposing to give themselves are wide open to abuse and are an affront to any reasonable sense of proportion and balance. The plans are also an assault on the rights of people to use public space for informal performances of music, and as such, represent a further erosion of communal forms of life and cultural freedoms.
The Reasons Why
Camden Council claim that this is a consultation and that the outcome is not pre-judged. However, a revealing article published in Camden New Journal back in April tells a different story. Deputy Mayor and Labour Councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli, went on a ‘walkabout’ along with other local politicians and council officers and a concerned resident.
He said: “We had to see the problems for ourselves.
“In the short-term we will be reinforcing existing laws, for example when a busker obstructs passage we can legally move them.
“In the long-term we are changing policies and opting for a strict new one, meaning very specific powers to deal with busking. It will involve designated areas for them, and will not allow amps or more than one person at a time. So instead of bands we’ll see the return of traditional busking musicians.”
We know exactly what those ‘very specific powers’ are now, and they are an insult to freedom and to fairness. Many street performers use battery-powered amplifiers to support their performances. For anyone playing a classical or electric guitar they are an essential piece of equipment enabling music to be heard above the noise of traffic. Amplifiers can always be turned down if there are complaints, but to ban them entirely, along with percussion and wind instruments will have the effect of destroying livelihoods; whilst doing little to alter the fact that Camden is a noisy place. People flock to Camden from all over the world precisely because it is known as a cultural and musical epicentre with a vibrant night-life. In an all-out assault on buskers, Camden Council are demonstrating a tin ear for what really makes the place tick.
Later in the same article and in a clear sign that the wrongheadedness in Camden Council crosses party lines, Lib Dem councillor Chris Naylor cryptically alludes to development plans that might well alter the unique character of Camden for good…
He said: “There were plans to build a huge shiny shopping centre all the way from HSBC bank to Buck Street which would have knocked down the church and Camden Market.
“Now, we don’t want to do that in as big a way, but a smaller scale version is being talked about. That would mean this whole area would be changing anyway, and within that we could discuss options.”
Banning buskers whilst making plans to build a new shopping centres in the ruins of an iconic Market which is synonymous with Camden against a backdrop of savage local authority cuts? It’s a deeply depressing story which is why it is so important that the plans to regulate street music out of existence must be opposed in a spirit of creative and loving resistance. That’s where the Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra and the 2600 and counting people who have signed our petition calling on Camden to think again come in and why we won’t go away until these wrongheaded plans are abandoned!