Mathew Street Festival Report

Mathew Street Festival Report

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.

 

The rain couldn’t dampen our spirits, no health and safety cancellations here…

Keep Streets Live! Campaign Updates…

Keep Streets Live! Campaign Updates…

Photo: A map showing the area of the city centre which Liverpool City Council intend to sweep clear of buskers during the Mathew Street festival.

 

Friday 24th August was a very important day for the Keep Streets Live! campaign. As many of you will be aware, one of the many buskers in Liverpool affected by the Council’s heavy-handed decision to clamp down on street entertainment has taken steps to seek justice for Liverpool’s buskers in the courts. Aided by Kirwan’s Solicitors, Siobhan McDermott has made an application for a judge to review the lawfulness of the Council’s policy and to strike it down.

Today, Siobhan and I drove to a sitting of the High Court in Manchester for a hearing before Judge Waksman QC. The purpose of the hearing was to seek assurances from Liverpool City Council about their current policy towards street performers and to ensure that there would be no extra clampdown on buskers during the Mathew Street festival. We were delighted that Liverpool City Council made an undertaking at the hearing NOT to

Apply or enforce, or encourage any other person to apply or enforce the street entertainment terms and conditions passed by Cabinet on June 8th 2012

pending the decision of the judicial review that has been applied for. It was noted that those undertakings were given without prejudice to Liverpool City Council’s other rights, power, duties or obligations pursuant to statute and common-law. That is fine by us. We have always said that the Council have a range of existing statutory powers to deal with any problems that arise from time to time. What we have always objected to was their attempt to impose an onerous additional set of terms and conditions onto street performers. We are glad of the Council’s undertaking not to enforce this policy pending the  coming Judicial Review.

However, during the hearing it also emerged that Liverpool City Council have made an operational decision to restrict street entertainment in much of Liverpool city centre for the entire duration of the two day Mathew Street festival. It seems this worrying decision was taken at a multi-agency meeting on the 28th June, but sadly it was not communicated adequately to those who are most affected – namely, the street artists and performers of Liverpool. The Council claim that the Police had been key drivers of the decision but did not provide a letter to this effect. Upon request, a map emerged of the area where street entertainment was to be actively, shall we say, discouraged (see above). As you can see, it covers an enormous part of Liverpool city centre. It was certainly a much larger area than was implied by the words in the letter Joe Anderson sent to Kirwan’s solicitors on August 23rd when he said:

For reasons of crowd management, the Police instruct that certain pitches have to be suspended and that Busking should not occur within certain parts of the City centre as it would constitute a health and safety hazard in terms of crowd management. The City Council are merely following the advice and instruction of the Police.

Given the history of Liverpool City Council’s behaviour towards buskers, we think it a tad unlikely that the major drivers of this policy are Merseyside Police who tend to be too busy fighting crime to act as impromptu talent show judges and anti-busker crusaders. We also question whether street performers constitute a genuine health and safety concern in light of the fact that the Mathew Street festival is an outdoor music festival set in the context of… yes, the streets! Would it not be reasonable to expect that there would be STREET entertainment at an outdoor music festival called the Mathew STREET festival? We do not understand the Council’s attitude towards street performers, nor why they seem to see buskers as such a threat to public order but are happy to turn Liverpool City Centre into a giant outdoor pub for 48 hours and hope for the best.

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!