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!

 

Anderson & Munby’s Hard Council

Anderson & Munby’s Hard Council

Photo: sixeightthree.

The summer of 2012 will be remembered for many things, the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, the Olympics and the continued stagnation of the UK economy, amongst other events. The street artists and performers of Liverpool will remember it for another reason, however: it was a time when a ragtag collection of artists, misfits, buskers and other concerned citizens stood up to Liverpool City Council and said a resounding ‘No!’ to their restrictive and coercive license scheme. Liverpool Council’s ‘Street Activity Management Plan‘ covered street preachers, skateboarders, political activists as well as buskers. The policy had sought to strangle the freedom of all those whose use of public space in Liverpool City Centre did not meet the council’s limited criteria of approval. Well-trodden streets were, at the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, turned into ‘regulated entertainment zones’ where impromptu performers faced the threat of trespass prosecutions if they dared to play without a council permit. The policy had been lobbied for by the City Central Business Improvement District (BID), an unelected, democratically-unaccountable, quasi-governmental body that represents the interests of major retailers in exchange for an additional layer of rates. For them, the urban environment is a space that needs to be tightly controlled and managed. In Councillor Stephen Munby, they found a local politician prepared to endorse their vision of a city centre that kept all ‘un-authorised’ street activity at bay and enabled the veneer of democratic approval to be placed upon a policy that was coercive, anti-democratic – not mention unlawful – to it’s very core.

Whatever it was that drew Stephen Munby into politics, and, by all accounts he was something of a marxist firebrand in his youth (he wrote for Marxism Today and Challenge, The Young Communist League’s Magazine amongst others), I doubt it was the desire to oversee and legitimise a heavy-handed clamp down upon street culture. When Joe Anderson joined the Labour party I’m sure that siding with the perceived interests of the rich and powerful against the marginalised and the vulnerable was not his primary motivation. In fact, I have no doubt that both men have, at times, been motivated by the genuine desire to serve the public and to make the world a better place. But when these elected politicians, however unwittingly, give legitimacy to policies that are coercive and soul-sapping in their assault upon freedom and creativity, they must be held to account. This is why the Keep Streets Live! campaign launched a legal challenge with the support of Kirwans Solicitors which saw the council withdraw their contentious legislation in September this year. That is why we were hoping that the council would take the opportunity presented by the abandonment of their scheme to work with the city’s street artists and performers, with the input of the Musician’s Union, to come up with a best practise guide that enhances the vibrancy of the city centre. We were still waiting for the council’s invitation to such a meeting when the next phase of their busker clampdown began.

Over the past three weeks Liverpool Council have conducted an operation that involved council officials, accompanied by police officers, approaching every street performer in the city and asking them for their names and addresses. We at ASAP! believe that in a free society it is an act of intimidation to approach a person who is behaving lawfully with uniformed officials and to ask for names and addresses, so we advised street performers to politely decline such requests. When performers did decline they were told to move on, that they were causing an obstruction and, in some cases, vague threats of arrest were made. When our solicitor David Kirwan wrote to the Council’s solicitor to ask for an explanation of their behaviour he received an evasive and dissembling reply:

The City Centre Management Team conducted a joint exercise with Merseyside Police and Environmental Health over two weekends to ensure that all busking activity in the City Centre was being conducted without causing any issues in relation to noise nuisance or obstruction and also to ensure that all buskers were aware of what is required of them to ensure vibrant city centre entertainment which works for all stakeholders.

To people on the ground it was experienced more as a coordinated campaign of harassment and intimidation, especially as no-one who was approached was doing anything unlawful or disruptive. The reply continued:

As part of the activity, buskers were approached and were given advice and guidance in relation to issues such as noise nuisance and obstruction. As a local authority, we have a statutory duty as regulators to ensure that we evidence any advice and guidance that we distribute prior to implementing any enforcement which may prove necessary. It was pursuant to this requirement for evidence that names and addresses were sought so that the Council would have to hand details of those to whom we had spoken and the information with which they had been provided.

When you cut through the thick layer of jargon and bureaucratic language, this makes it sound like it was no more than a council outreach program on behalf of buskers. It was no such thing. It was a coordinated attempt to intimidate street artists, and to show them who was in charge following the council climbdown over the summer. We received many reports of buskers being threatened with arrest, moved on by the police, and even being told by council officials that details of who was performing on ‘Liverpool Council’s property’ would be passed on to the Inland Revenue and Benefits Office to ensure that no benefits claims were being made. This is unnacceptable behaviour designed merely to cause fear and uncertainty.

These are hard times. We have a national government who are cutting the benefits of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society and starving local authorities of the money they need to carry out their statutory duties. Jobs and money are scarce, people are suffering. In this light, is it acceptable for the local authority to be diverting the scarce time and resources of the police and other bodies for a Christmas clamp down on buskers, when budgets are already stretched to the limit? There are deep social problems in Liverpool, harsh budget cut-backs, a housing crisis, high unemployment, homelessness and widespread drug and alcohol dependency. With this in mind, it seems obvious that such issues that are genuinely caused by buskers are easy to deal with, without the need for heavy handed action against performers or spending scarce council time and money passing legislation that restricts street culture in a city whose very lifeblood is music. The Council observe that there are more buskers then ever before, but why this should surprise them at a time of high unemployment is beyond us. Why do they feel the need to make life more difficult for performers then it already is? The local authority are best understood as stewards and guardians of our public spaces. They should be celebrating the diverse talent that take to the streets to entertain the public, they should support those individuals who brave the elements with no guarantee of reward and animate the urban environment, and they should stand alongside all users of the shared public spaces of the city centre and work with us all to build community and resolve such issues as do arise amicably.

So Councillor Stephen Munby and Mayor Joe Anderson, let’s put a stop to this silliness. You both have better things to be spending your time on then worrying about buskers on the streets of Liverpool. There are a lot of people suffering right now. There is poverty all around us. The shiny new Waterfront developments and LiverpoolONE do not hide the fact that deeper problems face the Liverpool community then a few ‘pesky’ buskers. ASAP! wants to work with you, with the help of the Musician’s Union, to find creative ways of dealing with busking issues without resorting to coercive legislation or heavy handed council action. Liverpool is known worldwide for its culture and music, but also for its friendliness and openness of spirit. By working together, we can build on Liverpool’s growing reputation and enhance the life of the city. We are waiting for your call Liverpool City Council.

Success for ASAP!’s Keep Streets Live campaign in Liverpool!

Success for ASAP!’s Keep Streets Live campaign in Liverpool!

Christian and Jonny present David Kirwan, Senior Partner of Kirwan’s Soliciters, with a gift on behalf of street artists and performers in Liverpool whose livilihoods his public-spirited legal support has helped to safeguard.

(Cross-posted from The Association of Street Artists and Performers)

There is an autumnal chill in the air and the nights are drawing in, already the memories of summer are fading and winter looms ahead, a time when most buskers have to dig out their thermals and fingerless gloves. But despite the colder weather and the diminishing hours of sunlight, our spirits are high. More than three months after its introduction, and under threat of legal action initiated by the Keep Streets Live! campaign, Councillor Stephen Munby announced Liverpool City Council’s decision to abandon their contentious busking at a recent cabinet meeting. This climbdown is hugely welcome and highly significant. It demonstrates that a constructive campaign of opposition can make a difference, and represents a significant moment in the ongoing campaign to protect street culture. At long las common sense has prevailed. We hope that this council reversal represents the beginnings of a new culture of cooperation and compromise between street performers and the powers that be.

Early on into the campaign, Kirwans Solicitors offered pro bono legal support to our cause, and began a legal challenge which was instrumental in the policy’s downfall. David Kirwan, Senior Partner at the firm, described Liverpool’s scheme as “oppressive, irrational and disproportionate“. At our campaign’s invitation, Kirwans initiated a formal legal challenge in the form of a judicial review application on behalf of Liverpool busker Siobhan McDermott. We know that the legal pressure applied by Kirwans helped to focus the minds of the council, and hope that they will now abandon the use of coercive measures like threats of trespass prosecutions and restrictive license schemes. We look forward to helping them draw up a system which genuinely enhances city life, and doesn’t smother spontaneity with spirit-sapping regulations.

Nonetheless, there are still unanswered questions about the council’s attitude to our legal challenge. Why, for instance, did the council claim that they were always going to review the policy after a three month period? This claim is nowhere to be found in the notes from the cabinet agenda at which the policy was announced  and talk of ‘internal reviews’ only emerged after the scheme came under heavy criticism from Keep Streets Live!.  The legal challenge we launched by judicial review had to be done in the first three months of the scheme’s introduction or it would have been invalid. We think it is a little bit suspect that the proposed internal council review was to be after three months, precisely after a legal challenge would have been ruled out.

We are also disappointed that the Mayor of Liverpool is still maintaining that the policy was ‘lawful and reasonable’, despite the information that the Keep Streets Live! campaign helped bring to light, and the many contentious points we drew attention to (such as the Simon Cowell clause, threats of trespass prosecutions in public space, the unlawful ban on under-18s and the small issue that the 2003 Licensing Act was never intended to cover busking).  The council are continuing to send out mixed messages about the real reasons they dropped the scheme.  We hope they come to see just how unreasonable their proposals really were and how troubling were the implications for how our shared public spaces are managed. This will be particularly useful if any new policy that emerges from this episode is to have real credibility.

So how did we arrive at this victory? Beginning life as a petition, growing into a website, taken up by the large number of affected parties, and so ending, finally, in the High Court, the campaign could not have succeed without the generous input and dedication of a wide variety of people who lent their support over the course of the summer.

From the supportive members of the public who turned out en-mass on the streets of Liverpool for celebratory busks to help raise awareness for the campaign, to the devoted members of our legal team, to the many individual buskers and performers who wrote and spoke out with passion and eloquence about the injustice of the council’s decision, people from all walks of life came together in a common effort to stand against an unfair decision. We owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands who signed the petition, to the street performers who turned up to the celebratory busks against the policy, to those who took photographs and made videos, designed websites and flyers, or lent their supportive presence to our various events, to sympathetic members of the public and supportive voices in the cultural and artistic communities of the city, to our dedicated and tenacious legal team, and those journalists who took the time to uncover the real issues at stake in Liverpool. We could not have achieved this without you.

To date, the campaign has attracted coverage from online, print, radio and television media outlets. Early on the Musician’s Union gave us their support and offered to help Liverpool City Council draft a fairer street performance system. This was enormously helpful. The staff at Change.Org also provided valuable advice and insight throughout the campaign.

Liverpool’s restrictive policy on street entertainment touched on many wider issues, and these issues are not going away. What, for example, are our public spaces for? Who are they for and who decides what happens in them? To what extent should narrow private interests be allowed to dictate public policy, in other words? All these questions touch upon the basic issue of what we want our streets to be like.

Street artists and performers are just one group amongst many different users of our shared public spaces. We could also mention political activists, street evangelists, shoppers, skateboarders, street traders and many, many more. All have their unique part to play in the tapestry of our shared urban lives. We agree with Mary Portas when she says in her well-publicised report that

Our high streets can be lively, dynamic and social places…that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community1

We believe that street art and performance adds colour and life to our public spaces and needs to be encouraged and protected.

 

What Next?

The Association of Street Artists and Performers (or ASAP! for short)will continue campaigning for a vibrant street culture, and will stand against burdensome and unduly restrictive regulations whether in Liverpool, or elsewhere. ASAP! is a movement for all who have a shared interest in street art and performance, and who value our shared public spaces as places of community, interaction, diversity and spontaneity. We wish to draw our membership widely and work alongside all those who care about street culture. As long as you share our values and are in agreement with our aims, we are happy for you to call yourself an ASAP! member, and we are here to help and support you. There is no charge for membership, although we are preparing information packs that will carry a small charge to cover our admin costs to send out.

If you would like to join ASAP! please fill in this form, add a few words about yourself (if you wish), and we will be in touch.

Until then, Keep Streets Live!

 

Footnotes

  1. http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/regeneration/pdf/2081646.pdf, pp.3