Open Letter to Oxford’s ruling Labour Group against their coercive busking policy

Open Letter to Oxford’s ruling Labour Group against their coercive busking policy
Keep Streets Live is Campaigning Against Oxford Council’s plans to make ‘noncompliant busking’ a criminal offence 
Join our all day protest against Oxford’s coercive Public Space Protection Order tomorrow from 12pm outside Pret a Manger on Cornmarket:
Sign our petition calling on Oxford to abandon its plans to criminalise buskers:
The following is an open letter to Oxford’s political leaders responding to their justification of the coercive busking policy:
Dear Oxford Councillors,
I have sent this message to Councillor Sinclair but feel its contents are very important and relevant to the political and cultural life of Oxford as a whole and deserve to be read by all the elected representatives at the Council
I had a useful and productive meeting with several Oxford Council Officers in April facilitated by Councillor David Thomas of the Green group at which I was able to clearly explain our position as a campaign group and why Oxford’s proposed course of action to target a Public Space Protection Order against ‘noncompliant’ buskers is so problematic. I had hoped that this meeting would help Oxford understand why the course of action they had proposed was disproportionate and contentious and that it would be quietly dropped as the plans to criminalise rough sleeping and feeding pigeons have already been put aside. We have also demonstrated a clear and workable alternative approach, a guide to busking in York drawn up by buskers, businesses and the local authority working together and targeting enforcement action against the small minority of buskers who cause genuine issues. I am attaching two PDFs of York’s policy, one aimed specially at businesses who might have issues with buskers, and one aimed more generally at buskers and others who use public space. I hope you all get the chance to scrutinise these documents carefully.
May I firstly say that I am willing to accept that the PSPO proposal although clearly misguided, is at least well-intentioned. Oxford is a wonderful city in which to busk and some form of oversight is clearly necessary. It is also clear that enforcement powers are needed as a last resort for nuisance caused by busking.
However, the proposals to make ‘noncompliant’ busking a criminal offence by implementing a PSPO go way beyond what is necessary and proportionate for the oversight of busking and , ironically, represent a real threat to the cultural and civic life of Oxford’s public spaces.
That is why, tomorrow, I will be helping to lead a day long multi-location protest busk against Oxford’s PSPO proposals to invite the Labour group and the responsible officers to rethink these damaging proposals. We will be on Cornmarket from 12pm onwards and if any elected members wish to come and speak to us we would be very happy to explain our position. Here is the Facebook event to the protest:
Quite simply, the proposed PSPO has the effect of turning an already restrictive busking code of conduct into criminal law and will thereby create a catalogue of entirely arbitrary new ‘criminal’ offences.
Oxford’s claims that existing powers are inadequate are misleading and inaccurate.
Oxford City Council already has legal powers to take action against buskers who are causing a noise nuisance and obstruction. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 it is a criminal offence to cause noise nuisance and the local authority can issue noise abatement notices against buskers and even confiscate musical instruments.
Likewise, under the Highways Act 1980 it is an offence to cause an obstruction on the highway, and any busker who does so can face enforcement action and punitive fines
Oxford’s existing code of conduct for busking is already highly restrictive and the proposal to introduce PSPO powers to underpin it will lead to arbitrary outcomes.
Oxford only ‘allow’ busking in eight official locations. Under the PSPO it will be a criminal offence to busk anywhere else, even if no obstruction is being caused. This creates an arbitrary criminal offence. In reality there are many more than eight places in the city where busking could be carried out without causing an issue.
Oxford only allow people to busk for one hour in one place and say no return is allowed to that spot within two hours. This treats a grassroots cultural activity which brings life and colour to the city centre as if it were car parking. A busker with a large repertoire of songs, played at a responsible and reasonable level can busk for longer than one hour without causing any issues whatsoever. Under Oxford’s PSPO proposal it will be a criminal offence to busk for 65 minutes, even if no nuisance has been caused, no complaints have been received and no one is waiting for a busking pitch. Once again this is in an entirely arbitrary outcome which undermines respect for the rule of law and is completely disproportionate.
‘A Guide to Busking in York’ is a collaborative document agreed between the busking community, Musician’s Union, Keep Streets Live Campaign, local authority and local businesses in that historic city over a period of 6 months of discussions. It is a clear alternative approach to the course of action Oxford propose. It has also been presented to Oxford’s ruling Labour group and senior officers within the council. It is designed to build good relationships between people who use the streets and provides a dispute resolution mechanism for people who have complaints about buskers. Importantly, enforcement action will only be taken as a last resort against buskers who are causing a specific issue such as noise nuisance or obstruction and who have refused reasonable requests to amend their performances. Unlike Oxford’s PSPO proposal a busker would not face a criminal record just because they had played in the wrong spot or for longer than one hour. There would have to be a justified reason for taking enforcement action. This has the advantage of being both fair and sensible in light of the costs of taking enforcement action and the relatively scarce resources available to the council. You can see York’s busking guidance at this link:
including a special four page document aimed at city centre businesses. It is a clear alternative to the proposals Oxford Council have put forward.
Oxford make the spurious claim that they need to introduce a PSPO because they have no existing powers of enforcement. I have already shown that this is demonstrably untrue and that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and Highways Act 1980 give scope for enforcement against noise nuisance and obstruction. Additionally, since October 2014 under the Antisocial Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 (The same act that contains PSPOs) the council now have the power to issue Community Protection Notices (CPNs) against any individual whose behaviour is a) unreasonable and b) having a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the vicinity. The breach of a CPN is a criminal offence and can lead to the seizure of musical instruments and punitive fines. CPNs could be issued to any busker whose conduct was deemed to be unreasonable and having an adverse affect on the quality of life of those within the vicinity. It is impossible to imagine a situation arising from busking where a CPN or the other pieces of legislation already mentioned would be inadequate. The advantage of a CPN over the PSPO is firstly that is targeted against individuals rather than buskers as a group, and secondly that it is more difficult to issue arbitrarily. A busker could not get given a CPN just for busking in the wrong spot for the wrong length of time unless they were actually causing a significant issue. Under the PSPO legislation a busker could be fined and criminalised even if they were causing no issue to any person. This is an arbitrary outcome that undermines respect for the rule of law and will create an unnecessary relationship of antagonism between Oxford’s civic officers and the busking community. It will also out many buskers and musicians off from travelling to Oxford in the first place and create a more routinised, sanitised and duller public realm which cannot be good for the city.
In short, there are many good alternatives to the PSPO approach, and many good reasons why the PSPO should not be adopted. The only remaining reason why Oxford might consider adopting the PSPO are because a) It creates a summary power to use against buskers which appears to be administratively convenient to do b) There is no requirement to produce evidence that a busker has caused an issue, buskers can be given a £100 fine just for playing in the wrong spot or for longer than 60 minutes which is less difficult than proving that a busker has been unreasonable and is causing a genuine issue.
The PSPO is a disproportionate and unjustified response to the issue of busking. We call upon Oxford City Council to drop these contentious proposals and to open a genuine dialogue with the busking community, local businesses, Musician’s Union and the Keep Streets Live Campaign and to introduce guidance promotes harmony and good will and does not create arbitrary criminal offences to the great detriment of the civic and cultural life of the city of Oxford.
Kind regards,
Jonny Walker
Founding Director of Keep Streets Live Campaign

This was Oxford City Council's official response to our petition:

Oxford City Council encourages busking in the city centre. It adds a great deal to the vibrant and exciting city centre experience that we all know and love.

For the last decade, the City Council has had a Code of Practice that buskers are asked to agree to observe when they obtain a busking permit from the Council. to observe when they obtain a busking permit from the Council.

The Code includes:

– Not busking for more than 60 minutes in one place
– Not obstructing the highway
– Using amplification responsibly and maintaining a reasonable volume

The aim of the Code has always been to create a level playing field for all buskers and to stop any nuisance to everyone else who uses the city centre

– traders, local residents and visitors.
We currently have no legal power to enforce this Code of Practice and have received complaints from traders, in particular, about buskers playing loudly and for long periods of time outside their shops, which is not fair to them.

The Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) has been proposed in order to provide a legal power to take action against busking which leads to complaints from the public. In all cases, buskers will be asked to conform to the Code before any enforcement measures are used.

The PSPO will allow the Police or designated Council officers to issue a £100 fine or, in the most extreme of cases, to take the person to court, which could result in a maximum fine of £1,000.

But the Order will also remove the current requirement to obtain a permit before busking. After the PSPO has been introduced, people wishing to busk will be able to do so without contacting us in any way. All they will need to do is adhere to the existing Code of Practice.

The measures proposed will therefore have no impact on the vast majority of buskers and will in fact make it easier for musicians to busk in Oxford city centre. We think the measures will help to improve the liveliness of the city centre.

Posted on May 20, 2015
This post was written by
Singer-Songwriter/Professional Street Performer/Campaigner/Wandering Minstrel

7 Comments on "Open Letter to Oxford’s ruling Labour Group against their coercive busking policy"

  • The Tory Anti Social Behaviour And Policing Bill 2015 was created by David Cameron & his pals as an ‘advancement’ on the pre-existing ASBO. Quite clearly & basically its a political tool readily available to Local Authorities so to control a ‘growing’ ( some would say ‘manufactured’ by ‘new’ Welfare Policy eg. Benefits Sanctions ) Underclass.

    Of course it could be argued that this legislation also provides the ‘opportunity’ for further ‘cynical’ exploitation & the creation of public ‘Cash Cows’ ( see above ) eg by making it easier for councils to create ‘petty’ offences & rake money in from ‘on-the-spot’ fines for ‘minor’ misdemeanours eg. the dog messing on the grass etc, ‘genuine’ Buskers straying into ‘no-go’ areas etc.

    In Labour boroughs like Camden the problem is complicated further when local authorities for ‘various’ political reasons eg. big ‘property’ interests, wish to get rid of ‘established’ cultural practises like Street Performing & Street Art.

    My message to Oxford Council is that in the interests of ‘civic’ justice please stop behaving like a Chicago politicing local borough & instead reach out to wider ‘newer’ legitemate interests. Remember that these are culturally ‘transformative’ times in the case of Street Performers too, a wide array of performers from ‘different’ backgrounds, go out busking today ( despite no doubt you having experienced some pretty ‘bad’ individual cases, very few ‘outdoors’ performers these days represent an ‘itinerant’ threat ) .

    In fact an important ‘significant’ recent trend has been towards the appearance of ‘tax-paying’ professional-like, Public Musicians who provide both ‘great’ entertainment in our town centres & can be/are a ‘positive’ influence on other town players. The key value here is to be ‘proportionate’ ( remaining positively liberally ‘tolerant’ with an eye to finding ‘creative’ solutions ) in handling busking matters, bearing in mind the changing socio/economic climate

    At a time of ‘economic’ liberalisation with regards shops & ‘shopping’ eg, Sunday ‘opening’s, 24hr day Supermarkets etc, I find it grossly unjust ( a blatant ‘hypocrisy’! ) that whilst shopkeepers & ‘retailors’ on the High Street are ‘recognised’ & allowed to have their ‘business’ opening hrs extended, some local ‘authorities’ like Oxford wish to ‘over’ control & restrict the playing times & ‘commercial’ activities of ‘working’ Street Performers & Artists.

    There needs to be ‘pause’ for thought here, the situation re-considered’. Buskers, Street Performers, & ‘Public Musicians’ must be treated fairly & in line with ‘all’ sectors of the business community. We all have a right to the pursuit of happiness & we all know that in this ‘consumer’ age this includes the ‘freedom’ to make money, in ‘our’ case through ‘valid’ High Street public entertainment.

  • At the end of the day, it will be good old-fashioned human communication ( & ‘negotiation’ ) involving ‘all’ parties ( including hobbyists, enthusiasts, ‘serious’/not so serious ‘creative’ amateurs ), & including a lot of ‘local’ goodwill, that will be the truly successful ( ‘peaceful’ ) harbinger of Culture, Politics & The Public Space.

    It is a gross ‘civil’ wrong when individual Council ‘authority’ figures are allowed the rather ‘arbitary’ Power ( based on the ‘feedback’ of ‘a few’ shopkeepers/retailers ) to draw a ‘circle’ (ring) in what is ‘public space’ & then be able to say any ‘action’ ( such as singing a song ), that crosses that line ( that steps over ‘my’ constructed boundary ) I can now define as criminal ‘anti-social’ behaviour.

    What we end up with is not ‘civil justice’ but the ‘public abuse’ of a whole creative ‘section’ of the city-centre ‘working’ community. Plus we get the violent dismisal ( believe me this is a kind of ‘psychic’ state violence ), an ‘aggresive’ sweeping aside, of the ‘liberal’ democratic solutions that already exist, & importantly ( to a large extent ) work! ( morally/ ‘emotionally’ as much as rational-legally ).

    For me PSPO solutions are basically town-planning mis-applied & city ‘security’ gone mad; a post-enlightenment, social hygenists nightmare. The only ‘true’ political powers you need are to identify, aprehend & justly deal with individual malpractors. Current ‘control’ orders are a ‘poor’ substitute for good policing on the ground & their ‘prospective’ use is already having oppressive ‘ill’ socio/psychological effects.

    I can see it all around me in the ‘demotivated’ broken wills that litter the ‘fringes’ of a city like Birmingham. Its like taking a sledgehammer to crack a ‘legal’ walnut, these kinds of ‘control’ order; so energy sapping, so ‘anti’ the true ‘liberal’ character of our country, of England, of the UK. This place is becoming like a third world country, like the USA.

    Our city-centres don’t have to be ‘perfect’ designer Archictectural
    Texas shopping mall ‘consumer’ heavens & they don’t have to be puritanically cleansed centres of church spire, college & tradition.
    On the other hand we understandably don’t want to be deluged by what Russian Literary critics call the ‘poshlost’.

    * Ok, there is naturally something a bit adolescent & immature in the ‘romanticism’, expressed by many ‘Buskers’, Street Performers & Artists, but then again there can be something rather heartless, cold & dogmantic in many aspects of city council ‘modernity’.

    Oxford Council I hope this is’nt the end of the story, in ‘the future’ I hope together we can learn to soften the worse sides of modernity through the best sides of romanticism, in order to create a more ‘evolved’ alternative , what one might term, ‘ An Age of Maturity ‘.
    ( * Paraphrased from Romanticism – The School of Life; YouTube )

  • Of course we must not overlook the fact that there are very ‘real’ pressing social problems facing our towns & cities. We seem to be living in ‘2 Worlds’ 1. A world of ‘privelage’ where you set yourself ‘clear’ goals, play to your strengths, do what you enjoy & then go on to live a meaninful, purposeful career and ‘rich’ life. 2. A world of ‘welfare’ where you’re told what to do & where under threat of heavy ‘sanction’ you’re expected to take whatever job is on offer regardless of ‘real’ suitablility or ‘fit’. Wheres the ‘justice’ in that?.

    I watched an early evening TV ‘local’ news programme ( ‘Nationwide’ style ) and the issue of ‘skill’ training came up. Whilst the one interviewee called for a ‘serious’ drive to increase ‘skills’ levels across the board to meet with ‘future’ growth, his opposite, a local Business Woman, insisted on a ‘safer’ form of investment, as all she & her company required were young people who could basically answer the telephone and speak politely to incoming callers.

    The latter statement could be used as part of a persuasive argument critiquing Schools inadequacy for not even being up to the job of producing kids who can answer the phone properly. However from the larger perspective I cite this kind of ‘utilitarian’ ( business pragmatic view ) as evidence of how human-beings with no doubt much ‘latent’ talent & ability are upon order, reduced to mere ‘little’ objects, with their possible human potentials re-directed, shaped & molded to fit the profit-making agendas of the local Bourgeiosie ( Business Class ).

    I popped into Birmingham city centre most recently to get my hair cut. It had been a while so one could’nt help but be overwhelmed by all the un-earthing and digging going on, wires, cable everywhere.You also could’nt also fail to notice the contrasting sight to all these buildings going up, tram-lines going down, like some Italian ‘Futurist’ heaven. That was the ‘social’ fact that there were so many human-figures, in sleeping bags, begging everywhere, on every street & every corner eg. Corporation Street, New Street, Hill Street, On the way from Moor Street Station & on the way to it!.

    The whole urban scene these days seems to be taking on a ‘Third World Character’, a clear picture representing ‘extremes’ between rich and poor ( essentially a ‘surplus’ working class ). For me Birmingham today, London Banking headquarters are now relocating here, is a rapidly manifest ‘new’ Capitalist hierarchy of Investors & ‘super’ Rich at the top and people of sheer poverty at the bottom, that together with quite a ‘blurred’ middle ground.

    Its also noticeable how any notion of ‘popular’ capitalism amongst these todays ‘masses’ have seemingly vanished. The middle appear to be just existing, homogenising and surviving not popularly ‘speculating’, saving & investing. One sight that did stand out for me though & represented the kind of business future activity we might expect to see ‘emerging’ from some of the less fortunate amongst the herd, was by New Street Station.

    That of 2 guys both with ‘ Abbey ‘ Road style beard,s one with an ‘acoustic’ guitar & about to ‘strum’, the other with a similar guitar but in his instance placed in its case & strapped rather ‘cooly’ ( ‘Bandito Style’ ) across his back.

    I’m noticing this ‘trend’ elsewhere, its catching on, especially amongst Street People. In fact a guy drew up on his ‘mountain’ bike the other day in stratford upon Avon, whipped out a sleeping bag, sat down opposite where I was playing & began begging. He was moved on by PCSO’s ( thats when I first noticed him actually sat there! ), but he returned soon later, this time set up ‘behind me’, with an empty ‘money’ case placed in front of him & a ‘landscape’ art painting placed beside him, with a ‘notice’ attached on it – For Sale!‘.

    A few days later I saw the same guy again but this time with an ‘acoustic’ guitar, & as you guessed carried in its case & ‘strapped’ rather ‘cooly’ ( Bandito Style ) across his back. He sat around again, I intermittantly took a quick look at him from the corner of my eye. No sign of ‘him’ actually playing. PCPOs turned up again this time they just walked on by!.

    • Notes ( On ‘Consciousness’ Raising ! )

      On top of the open ‘letters’ sent to Oxford Council critical of ‘coercive’ busking policy, there has to be an ‘effort’ to consciousness raisng in general, thru’-out the UK !.

      I’ve experience more than once, the ‘negative’ scenario of being passed by ‘certain’ individuals ( ‘uncultured’ to say the least! ) who on passing have ‘aside’ made the ‘snide’ remark that I’m playing ” aggh Gypo Music ! ” when I am in fact performing Brazilian Choro ( ‘aesthetically’ it works well on ‘nylon’ string guitar as a kind of ‘folkey’ rhythmic romantic cafe music ! ).

      Misunderstanding the ‘different’ coupled with ‘irrational’, underlying fear of ‘ the Other ‘ has got to be legitemately ‘challenged’ & as an ‘attitude’ ‘progressively’ changed, preferably in the classroom, if not in Civic Society, if the country is to not just return to, but ‘optimally’ achieve its ‘good’ health. ( Nb not sure if the possible ‘ascendant’ politcal class can help here tho, judging by Boris Johnsons recent ‘euro’ debate comments about USA President Obama i.e him somehow being ‘anti’ English cos’ of his Kenyan ancestry ! ) .

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