Response To High Court Decision

Response To High Court Decision

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Next Stop: The Court of Appeal!

Our date with Lady Justice was bittersweet. Our barrister David Wolfe QC convincingly put forward the case that Camden’s scheme is unlawful. It is too wide, it even criminalises unamplified singing in the streets for fun and spans the entire geographical breadth of Camden turning all public spaces into ‘no go areas’ for ‘unauthorised’ live music when the vast majority of complaints pertain to Camden Town. It interferes with Article 10 Rights (Freedom of Expression) in a manner and to an extent that is in no way justified by any pressing social need. Musical ideas are entitled to protection just as written and political ideas are, and they often intertwine as Pete Seger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and many others could attest. What does it say about our society when playing music or singing for your pleasure and that of other people is turned into a potential criminal offence subject to draconian police-backed license controls?

Camden’s barrister was reduced to repeating the Orwellian proposition that this scheme was ‘light touch regulation’ and would actually ENCOURAGE and PROMOTE busking. In defiance of modern understandings of physics and physiology, Camden Council’s Licensing Officer stated that the human voice box itself is a form of amplification and therefore needs to be licensed. Their barrister argued that the protections afforded to buskers under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act are engaged at a low level. To argue this he used the case of Miss Behavin’ Ltd vs Belfast City Council, a sex shop that was refused a license. Whilst he made clear he wasn’t suggesting a direct equivalence between selling pornography and singing in the streets, his argument was the article 10 rights of would-be street artists and musicians are engaged at a low level which makes it easier to justify an interference with them.

I’m sorry to say that Mrs Justice Patterson sided with Camden Council:

“… the Defendant has adopted a policy which, in my judgement, is both necessary and a proportionate response to the issue of busking. It has striven to introduce a policy which holds the ring between promoting economic growth through fostering dynamic busking activity across the Borough but balancing that with the requirements of its residents and other economic activity which contributes to the well being of Camden. It has done so in a way which, in my judgement, is lawful.” [Para 122]

Quite how criminal records, £1000 fines, instrument confiscations and fire-sales serve to ‘foster dynamic busking activity’ I leave to your imagination. The mention of ‘promoting economic growth’ I also found confusing as if street music was an impediment to the transnational flow of capital, but Camden Town Unlimited, a Business Improvement District which represents major businesses in Camden welcomed the ruling too.

Rosa Curling, a lawyer in the Human Rights team at Leigh Day, who is representing Keep Streets Live Campaign said:

“We will now seek permission to take this decision to the Court of Appeal. The Council’s draconian licensing policy is unnecessary, unlawful and threatens the very essence of what makes Camden such an important cultural space.”

The generous support of many hundreds of people enabled us to bring this historic High Court Challenge.
We are disappointed that Mrs Justice Patterson has seemingly taken at face value Camden’s argument that people making music on the streets have a low level of protection under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act. This has much wider implications for the way music is valued in contemporary society. We profoundly disagree with her judgment and, despite the £7500 cost award against us, will seek to have this case heard by the Court of Appeal.

Cultural freedom and political freedoms are closely intertwined. Under Camden’s scheme it would be illegal to sing a protest song without a license as part of a static protest. From our perspective this makes the excessive interference with Article 10 rights clear and unambiguous. In a democratic society singing in the street should never be a potentially criminal offence. The Metropolitan Police lobbied hard for this policy and will be closely involved in the process of granting and refusing licenses. That, in itself, is worrying especially in light of recent revelations about the conduct of the Met. The police and local authorities have ample powers already to deal with genuine crime, noise nuisance and disorder. In my view they should use the powers they already have and targeting them at people who are causing genuine harm to others to promote the common good.


This campaign has been a real challenge at times, but also a beautiful experience as I have met so many wonderful people who value artistic and cultural freedoms and are willing to stand up for lowly buskers (It was my privilege on Monday to visit the House of Lords for a meeting with Lord Clement-Jones and Viscount Clancarty who are great supporters of the arts alongside senior cultural officers from the Greater London Authority and a pioneering musical advocate and professional jazz drummer, Hamish Birchall). With this in mind we are empowered to constructively and creatively challenge this damaging new law, and have our say about the place of informal performances of art and music in the ongoing civic life of our nation. Camden Council, I’m afraid we are not going to go away!


You can support our ongoing fundraising at this link (Which is rather more pressing in the light of the costs awarded against us!), but comments, suggestions and words of encouragement (or criticism!) are also most welcome,

With love,

Jonny Walker
Founding Director of the Keep Streets Live Campaign

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

3 Comments on "Response To High Court Decision"

  • * High Court ( A Plea from a Street Performer )

    I’d like the High Court and top Judiciary to recognise that Camden Council rather than enforcing some kind of ‘light-touch’ policy , are in ‘reality’, treating Street Performers like some ‘undesirable’ underclass, effectively beauracratically bullying them off the streets and politically ‘steamrolling’ them out of our ‘public’ spaces.

    ‘True’ justice dictates that its time to make ‘individual’ people accountable for their actions and not blame tools and equipment ( though not by being obliged to be presented ‘behind closed doors’ before a council commitee and judged a ‘fit & proper’ Busker, a prospect I personally find most oppressive, if not, a little ludicrous too! ).

    Stop targeting ‘all’ Street Musicians for a minorities ‘noise’ nuisance and misdemeanors, lift Camdens seemingly ‘blanket’ ban on ‘amplification’ and learn lessons from other cities like Birmingham and get proper ‘civic’ policing or better still ‘mediation’ in place with regards busking and the issue of ‘noise’ nuisance. Its worth it ‘good’ Street Performers can ‘positively’ transform the public space for everyone.

    *One more outstanding question of justice ( and plain human reason for that matter! ) Q. What about the wind intruments? Banning Recorders? Ugh? Come off it! .

    ‘ Would the Plaintif like me to consider any further
    demands? Well coming to think about it, yes, how
    about a ‘rational’ legal busking code? Its simple
    enough, I’m not asking for the 10 commandments ! ‘
    ( Romanza Rose v Camden Town Council )

  • *Analysis ( Camden )

    I think the way Street Performers have been treated in Camden is like that of an ‘undesirable’ underclass. I detect effectively a ‘scapegoating’ process going on here, the few reported nuisances that no doubt have caused some local problems to some local residents merely being used as a ‘smokescreen’ for blatant ‘beauracratic’ style ) Council bullying.

    The most ‘creative’ way to handle this kind of problem I would argue, is to acknowledge the few problems that do exist and then pre-emptively offer your own common-sense solutions to such problems, clear ‘rational’ ways of dealing with them and that means not merely appealling to exisiting legislation. By doing this you are in effect yourself brushing other peoples problems aside yourself, rather than taking the great strides of understanding and creativity that may point to more imaginative means of ‘civic’ policing or better still ‘mediation’. Basically what you need to do here ‘is’ the councils thinking for them, long before the opportunity arises when they can ‘negatively’ label ‘you’ the problem, rush in, follow through and brutally close ‘you’ down.

    In Birmingham even the most ‘stick in the mud’ complainants I’ve found can be placated by brisk ‘City Warden’ type response to for example situations involving ‘noise’ nuisance . Just as performers as myself value spontaneity, access to public space and freedom of expression, so Shopkeepers etc to be fair, do like a spontaneous ‘immediate’ response to related problems such as unwanted ‘noise, as and when it occurs, when it afflicts them.

    It really is a matter of healthy psycological sense of ‘control’ over a situation and a persons predicament being recognised, validated by ‘significant’ others. There are valid ‘legal’ options of course, however not necessarily the most advisable to follow eg. cumbersome legal process can exacerbate a problem for the individual whereas by contrast rapid remedial justice can nip a difficulty in the bud, therefore providing a much more satisfying to the victim.

    The ‘specific’ problem with Camden seems to be part of a broader issue to do with established political culture in the whole of the city, London that is. Today, 50% of Londons population is now of ethnic origin, there is a looming influx of immigration from Eastern Europe, and all of these groups are under represented in the political establishment.

    Following the recent London riots, the political mood at local level particularly amongst identifiable ‘political’ classes whose power feels observably under threat, to an onlooker ( an outsider ) such as myself, seemingly led to an almost ‘neurotic’ control response. Both the Labour Party and the Met Police are waning political forces ( powers under much critical scrutiny recently ) at present so it comes as no surprise to me that they are the two main collegiate forces involved in attacking and bringing down busking in the particular borough of Camden ( of course there may be subterannean self-interests at work here to eg. Property Developers etc.

    I agree with many spokespeople out there ( * See Commentary eg. Guardian Article ‘ High Court Upholds Camden Busking Restrictions ‘ 11/3/04 ) it is indeed folly to imagine that we are living in a ‘liberal’ democracy, a fully fledged ‘ideal’ one anyhow. For me what is important though is that we learn the lessons from what has happened to Buskers in places like Camden and begin to build the kind of political consciousness that really does understand the ‘serious’ imperfections and ‘flaws’ of the present system and the damage it does to many of us living through it. All this whilst confidently creating a healthier vision for the future.

    What with current attacks on insitutions like the welfare state, and more and more unemployed victimised by ‘cruel’ benefits sanctions, it is important to realize that building an ‘alternative’ ‘poverty’ industry is also not the answer, what the poor need, what we as a country need is to see a return to the principles that informed Bevans ‘pioneering’ post 1945 Welfare system.

    We simply can’t afford to depend upon what ought to be today regarded as ‘antiquated’, eg. old institutions like the Church, back now, running food banks up and down the land. Let us not have to rely on institutions best forgotten, for our relief and sustanence, not as modern ‘progressive’ human beings anyhow. Contrary to this recent ‘backwards’ trend we need to see a return to a sense of healthy econonomic optimism and modern ‘spiritual’ progress, informed and inspired by a new ‘universal’ romantic spirit, indeed a ‘new’ 21st Century enlightenment.

  • * A Rational Conclusion

    Its important to note that by definition ‘licences’ may be issued in particular by authorites to allow an activity that would otherwise be forbidden. Its in this context that only by getting away with labeling busking in general ‘deviant’ in the borough eg. presenting Buskers in Camden as forming some kind of ‘unruly’ underclass causing lots of nuisance and unwanted ‘noise’ in the area can a council like Camden legitemise its particular brand of ‘new’ regulatory policy including ‘licencing’.

    As a ‘jobbing’ Street Performer of 3 years now in a variety places outside of London including Birmingham and Stratford upon Avon I challenge the ‘deviant’ image of Buskers created by Camden and some ‘minority’ residents. In fact, reflecting upon my ‘practical’ experience out there busking on the streets I can clearly see that the kind of measure adopted by Camden is in actual fact relatively ‘draconian’.

    Seen in a comparative light and contrary to Mrs Justice Pattersons words the High Court, Camdens policy is in ‘reality’ disproportionate and un-necessary eg my ‘practical’ busking experience in a variety of other Uk towns and cities shows clearly that yes there a problems and incidents of Busking ‘noise’ nuisance ( the central issue! ) however they are not the ‘norm’, are commited by a minority of performers ( often ‘blindly’ sometimes due to blatant egoism and selfishness ), affecting only ‘some’ not all shops, ‘select’ offices, and ‘city-centre’/busy area residents and dealt with most effectively by well managed and ‘responsive’ Warden teams rather than licencing. Often all that is needed when relatively ‘rare’ problems arise is not even ‘civic’ policing but rather civil ‘mediation’ to solve problems.

    The truth is that Camdens recent Busking measures pose the ‘real’ threat to community not busking in itself. The very real danger here is of a more ‘closed’ society, where the state intrudes more and more into a public space that in the interests of liberty,wealth and growth ought better be maintained as ‘Civil’ spheres protected by civil solutions.

    Rather than a ‘necessary’ solution Camdens busking policy represents an unhealthy precedent. The act of creating images of Buskers as a social problem merely in order eg to appear tough on deviancy and crime in the run up to elections is the sort of short-term cynical act of policitical expediency that we all as democratic citizens be alarmed about and of course many of us do criticize. Much more healthy, positive and closer to the truth is that Street Performers ought to be more rightly regarded as possible transformers of otherwise fairly dull, souless urban environments through their creativtiy, and in the capable hands of many expresson of art and beauty. As a Street Performer my cultural policy directive is not nuisance nor annoyance nor simply hustling or manipulative self interest but rather honest public ‘trade’ through exuding ‘authentic’ music and charm.

    In fact its not only ‘oppressive’ its ‘regressive’ that local state bodies like Camden Council take actions that undermine the historical spirit, indeed the very socio-economic cultural fabric that once made England unique as the world leader on the progressive, industrial , capitalist world stage. An historical economic status only achieved by creation and preservation of a gap between economy and state, the creation of, valuing, and preservation of the ‘civic’ sphere.

    In the interest of futher economic growth, creative industry and wealth creation ( wealth defined by Adam Smith as ‘ all the things conducive to life eg. beautiful gardens, freedom etc *See Professor Alan Macfarlane Professor of Anthropology, Kings College, Cambridge University ). I call on Camden Council to re-consider its policy of ‘licencing’ ( ‘selection’ by commitee etc ) for busking and come up with more progressive liberal ‘civic’ remedies for what in effect are relatively minor, sporadic social problems generated by such activities.

    For ‘good’ civic models, very successful, non ‘licenced’ , Street Performer schemes and Buskers codes simply look around, further afield, outside London to places like the 2nd City ‘multi-ethnic’ Birmingham and tourist ‘hotspot’, centre of cultural heritage Stratford upon Avon. Both places manage to preserve creative valuable Street Cultures whilst protecting shops, residents, and High Street businesses from minority noise nuisacnces and troublesome Buskers when they do crop up. Importantly four a council such as Camden, these type of civic cultural policies also work well on the political stage, Tory/Liberal Councils who adopt such scemes fairing very well with the wider electorate.

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