Freedom and Public Space

Freedom and Public Space

The Orchestra….

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.

The Politics…

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!


Sign the petition here.

Join the Facebook Group

Join the Association of Street Artists and Performers



This post was written by
Singer-Songwriter/Professional Street Performer/Campaigner/Wandering Minstrel

5 Comments on "Freedom and Public Space"

  • kazoo coo ca choo

  • kazoo coo ca choo

  • Tony says

    It is noticeable that,nationally, it is Labour controlled Councils that have launched attacks on buskers. Is this part of Labour policy. If the Labour Party were to win the next General Election, would it seek to introduce legislation to restrict busking?

  • Under the freedom of speech laws they cannot ban street buskers.
    The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states that “[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals”.[1][2]

  • Its no surprise to me, as Tony mentions, that its Labour controlled councils that appear to be launching the bulk of political attacks on buskers.

    I’ve been plying my trade as a ‘serious’ street performer in Birmingham now for the past 3 years and my ‘romantic cafe guitar’
    act in the main gets a great response from the public and city-centre authorities alike both of whom seem to appreciate the expression of a bit ‘authentic’ art and beauty into the town environment – it really does have a ‘positive’ transformative effect.

    Prior to what has now become my ‘day-job’ I’d spent 3 straight
    years unemployed and was subjected to New Labour style welfare measures that seemed to be more about ‘control’ than helping people finding meaningful, creative work.

    Gordan Browns ‘new’ deal schemes were for me a ‘metaphor’ for the effective ‘criminalisation’ of the unemployed during those years, where ordinary people out of work for no fault of their own find themselves de-humanised, their wills attemptedly broken and their bodies directed towards society’s ‘dead-end’ jobs by these

    Since what I can only describe as my ‘submerged’ existence
    during the New Labour years my life has become an adventure,
    and I as a person have dramatically transformed. My life is now
    that of a kind of ‘free’ jouneyman.

    Taking advantage of all the new technologies including open internet access I have used the resources there to turn myself
    into a ‘credible’ musican. Completly self taught, I am totally free
    of the academy, I have no educational ‘masters’ so to speak
    yet I have successfully managed to gain access to the kind of
    know-how and skills that in theory will transorm me into a fully
    fledged artist – at the moment coming to the end of a seriously
    self designed ‘apprentice’ stage I am about to afford myself
    the coveted title of ‘Public Musician’ i.e. seriously respected
    street performer.

    These recent attacks on streetperformers and their art by such
    Labour run councils as Camden for me epitomises a political
    type that instinctively mistrusts people and their freedom, it goes
    against their very political grain that charismatic, creative individuals, the kind that you sometimes seeing playing openly
    on the streets should be granted anything like that dangerous
    thing you call ‘freedom’.

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