Why the campaign to Keep Streets Live in York really matters….

Why the campaign to Keep Streets Live in York really matters….

It is just over two weeks since my busking badge was ‘suspended’ by York City Council because of my refusal to pay the punitive rate of £40 per day they want from buskers who display their CDs. I had made mine available for a suggested and voluntary contribution instead and had brought upon myself the wrath of six public officials in the process. The heavy-handed treatment I received and the suspension of my buskers badge, without any kind of due process or right of appeal, convinced me that the way busking is governed in York has broken down beyond repair and needs to be replaced. I helped set up ASAP! (Association of Street Artists and Performers) last year to campaign for policies that help foster grassroots art and culture in public spaces, and to constructively oppose schemes that stifle it. We successfully campaigned against a damaging policy in Liverpool and won. It was clear we were now needed in York.

Our call to end York’s current busking rules is grounded in simple and clear values. We believe that public spaces should be places of spontaneity and diversity which allow for serendipitous experiences. We believe that in these fractured and uncertain times, policies that allow a sense of urban community to flourish are particularly important. Busking is a cost-free addition to the grassroots artistic and cultural life of the city. York City Council’s busking permit scheme, however well-intentioned it might have once been, is stifling street culture when it should be supporting and nurturing it. In addition, the Council seems to have granted themselves special powers, above and beyond the law of the land, to control which activities are allowed in the shared spaces of the city. They also appear to expect the police to act as their enforcement arm. This is the mis-use of scarce public resources at a time of austerity and needs to stop.

So what are we asking for?

1.) We want York City Council to scrap their restrictive busking policy and to replace it with a fairer and more open scheme that supports a vibrant and diverse street culture.

2.) Street performers, artists, musicians and professional bodies like the Musician’s Union should be involved in drawing up the new policy. Firstly, because it directly affects them, and secondly, because their input will be valuable in drawing up a policy with an impact on the cultural and social life of the city. Any subsequent changes to the scheme should involve consultation between all parties.

3.) The new busking scheme should be open and easy to access. Buskers should not have to fill out forms in advance and wait for an audition before taking to the streets (Though the council may wish to collect information about performers for their own records once they have busked in the city). At present people sometimes have to wait for months for an audition and are often told that there are no badges available. The council clearly lacks the resources to administer and enforce their current policy properly. This acts as a barrier to spontaneity and also discriminates against acts that are visiting the area for a short period of time and only perform occasionally.

4.) The scheme should be based upon cooperation between all the shared users of the public spaces of the city, and should aim to create a sense of urban community and belonging. People who wish to complain about a busker should be encouraged to talk directly to the performer in a polite manner rather then calling the council or the police in the first instance. In their turn, buskers should be considerate and cooperative in their use of shared space and responsive to the reasonable requests of public officials.

5.) Issues that arise from street performing should be dealt with fairly and transparently. The council should not grant themselves additional powers above the law of the land when dealing with buskers, such as restricting access to public space and removing busker’s badges without right of appeal or due process. Street performers provide a valuable addition to the urban landscape and deserve to be treated with respect. Buskers whose behaviour is unreasonable and inconsiderate will likely already be in breach of existing legislation such as the Public Order Act, the Environmental Health Act and the Highways Act. With the correct and proper application of existing law, there is no need for additional legislation.

6.) Musicians should be allowed to make CDs containing recordings of their own work available for voluntary contributions for no charge. If musicians wish to sell CDs the charge for a street trading consent should be reduced from it’s current excessive level of £40 per day to a fairer and more proportionate amount no greater than £10 per day. This will enable musicians to share their work with a wider audience at a time when traditional music venues are closing, and provide a vital civic and cultural outlet, both for performers and their audience.

There is nothing in these requests that it unreasonable or unworkable. A new busking policy could be worked out in the space of a few weeks at little to no cost to the local authority. York City Council have a unique opportunity to create a policy that sends an unmistakable signal to the world that they support their street artists, performers and musicians. By working together in a creative and collaborative way, we can offset some of the damaging economic trends that threaten the future of our high streets and our public spaces. A vibrant grassroots cultural scene is vital to the life of the City, and it starts on the streets. Work with us not against us York City Council, and Keep Streets Live!


Keep Streets Live in York

Keep Streets Live in York

Like many buskers, I became a street performer on the spur of a moment. Always a keen guitarist and singer, I went out on the streets of Durham impulsively one evening, during fresher’s week in my student days, and sang late into the crisp October night. I had a surprisingly large look of on-lookers for company and a guitar case more full of coins then I might have expected by the time I had finished. I have played on the streets ever since that evening, in towns and cities across the UK and as far away as the US of A. The spontaneity and the informality of the street is hugely attractive to me as a performer, and few streets hold greater appeal than the ancient cobbles of York. As a boy I spent a miserable term at York Minster School for Choirboys. As a man, I have spent countless happier afternoons and evenings serenading shoppers and passersby on Parliament Street and Coney Street in this most ancient of cities. I love York, its history, its atmosphere and its overwhelming beauty. I have spent ten years singing in its public spaces.

Last Wednesday I was stopped mid-song by a council official who accused me of street trading because I had a sign with suggested contributions for my CDs in my case, and called the police in an effort to have me removed. My treatment was heavy-handed to say the least. I posted about this incident on facebook and the story spread like wildfire, that post has now been seen by 1,747,000 people and counting. My buskers permit was ‘suspended’ the next day pending an ‘investigation’.

York City Council have operated a compulsory badge scheme for street performers since 2005. Would-be performers have to apply to the council for a permit and pass an audition as well as signing up to a list of terms and conditions. In recent times it has become harder to get a permit, and many people have been turned away multiple times after being told that ‘York was full’. It seems that the problems I had encountered were not unique. ASAP! campaigns for open public spaces and policies that support street culture. The situation in York has reached a point where the local authority are behaving in an unduly restrictive and arbitrary manner and are stifling street culture rather than supporting it. The legal basis of the permit scheme is very unclear. I have been told that if I busk without a permit, the police will be called to move me on. It is, however, uncertain what powers they would be using to do so, when I will have committed no offence.  ASAP is calling on the Council to forget calling the police and to abandon their busking permit scheme instead, replacing it with a new busking policy that opens up the public spaces of York to spontaneous expressions of grassroots art and culture.

The streets are where life happens. Street performers can bring a unique sense of place to a city. They create a sense of well being and foster the chances of serendipitous encounters. Policies that are unduly restrictive, as York Council’s has become, risk causing damage to street culture, and, by extension, the wider community. When the local authority denies people fluid access to public space it unwittingly reduces the variety of interactions on offer and reduces the potential for transformational encounters. That is why the Keep Streets Live campaign has sprung back into action. During these dark economic times, we need more spontaneity and variety, not less. The Council should be a steward of the public good, not a gatekeeper exercising capricious authority. I, for one, will continue to perform on the streets of York, and I don’t need a badge from the Council in order to sing my songs. See you on Parliament Street, and, until then, Keep Streets Live!

And sign our petition if you haven’t already, 980 signatures and counting…