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.

The Council Strikes Back!

The Council Strikes Back!

Photo: peter.clark

 

Only two short months after being forced to abandon their contentious and coercive busking license scheme, we have reliable reports that Liverpool City Council are up to their old tricks again. We have received information that individual street artists and performers have been approached by police officers and council officials and asked to give their names and addresses. Many performers have been approached on multiple occasions in what amounts to a coordinated campaign of harassment and intimidation.

In the light of the savage cuts to essential services that the council are having to put through, we think that a new campaign against the buskers of Liverpool is a terrible misuse of the council’s scarce time and resources. Our shared public spaces are a vitally important resource for our communities. Buskers help create a sense of place and identity for a city. Compulsory license schemes are bureaucratic, restrictive and unnecessary. A common sense voluntary code of conduct is all that is needed to promote a vibrant culture of street performance. Issues that arise from time to time can easily be dealt with on a case by case basis without the need for regulation.

ASAP! exists to help protect our public spaces and to safeguard street culture. We want to help local authorities to see the benefits of street animation, and to help them realize that this is one area of city life where a light-touch, hands-off approach will bear fruit. The city council at its best is a steward of our shared resources and exists to promote and protect the common good. When it goes after street performers in a misguided attempt to create ‘order’ on the streets, it departs from its primary function. We ask them to seriously consider whether sending out enforcement officials and police officers to intimidate people who are bringing life and colour to the streets is a good use of their time and efforts at this time.

In order to help Liverpool City Council see sense, and to raise awareness of this new campaign of intimidation, we are arranging a spontaneous celebration of street culture in the form of a communal busk this Thursday the 22nd of November on Church Street, Liverpool, just outside of Primark. We will be gathering from 5pm onwards with our instruments of choice. This will be a peaceful and joyful occasion. Everyone is welcome. We will be a positive presence on the streets! And remember, wether you are a street artist and performer, or just someone who values and cherishes street culture, ASAP! is here for you. We will not stand aside whilst local authorities conduct misguided clampdowns on a vital aspect of civic life. We will continue to campaign to keep streets live!

We will jam, we will play, we will never go away!

Summary of Major Objections

Summary of Major Objections

Photo: maistora.

 

We have one general and seven particular objections to Liverpool City Council’s new street performance policy.

In general, then, we object to the negative tone of the language used towards street performers throughout the minutes of the Cabinet Meeting where the new policy was put forward. For example:

At present street entertainment within the city centre can be intrusive to both businesses and residents alike. Street entertainers have in the past been accused of noise nuisance violations, repetitive performances, offensive/inappropriate behaviour and causing dangerous obstructions. There has been an increase in reports of abusive and offensive incidents which has caused alarm and distress to members of the general public and businesses within the city centre.

We believe this quote significantly overstates the issues that do arise from time to time from street performance, in order to provide a justification for the extensive and restrictive terms and conditions which Liverpool City Council are now requiring performers to sign up to.

Our seven particular objections to Liverpool City Council’s policy are as follows:

1. The policy uses coercive language and nebulous threats of prosecution for trespass in letters handed out to street artists and performers ahead of the new scheme, which needlessly intimidate vulnerable people and are exceptionally heavy handed. Since trespass is a civil, rather crimanal, offense, and requires material loss to be be proved,  legally highly questionable.

2. In extending enforcement powers to stop street performance on the smallest of pretexts, the policy risks turning those individual council officers and police into a poor man’s Simon Cowell in the sense that they can efectively prevent licensed performers from performing simply because they take an aesthetic dislike to your act or even to what you are wearing. 

3. The policy erroenously claims that “is illegal for persons under 18 to play, sing or perform in a street for money or monies worth”. In fact, the government’s own guidlines clearly state that “Children under 14 years may not busk”.

4. The policy is full of arbitrary specifications that make little sense. For instance: performers cannot occupy more then a 1.5m radius; sound must not be heard from more than 30m away; there can be no more than 5 people in a musical ensemble; signs must not be bigger than A4 in size; and no leaflets or demo CDs can be given away. The combined effect of all these sub-clauses is to grant officials of the council and enforcement officers due scope to endlessly chip away at performers and their ability to generate income by showcasing their talents.

5. The policy unnecessarily and arbitrarily limits the space wherein performances can take place, relegating street performance to a few officially sanctioned pitches, many of them in locations wholly unsuitable performance. Liverpool city centre has many natural pitches that performers are themselves accustomed for various reasons to performing upon: whether those reasons are acoustical, social or, indeed, economic. We favour dynamic rolling pitches with a recommendation for a 50m distance between noise-generating acts, with little restrictions on where ‘quiet’ acts like pavement artists can operate.

6. The policy requires performers to book with the council up to a week in advance to play for a maximum of two hours at any one pitch, turning what is often a spontaneous cultural event into a tightly controlled and highly limited activity. The policy is overly restrictive and needlessly bureaucratic. Street performance is, after all, a highly self-regulating business activity – those performers who are bad will not earn any money and quickly reconsider their act, whilst those who are good will flourish economically. The policy, furthermore, will make it much more difficult to make a living from street performance, thereby discouraging more accomplished acts from playing in Liverpool – the exact opposite result of the policy’s stated aims.

7. The policy discriminates against performers who use animals in their act. One owl-handler, who has a animal handling licence and £10 million worth of public liability insurance, and whose street act incorporates elements of educating people about birds of prey will be banned for no good reason.

We have gone into greater detail about specific articles of the policy in previous posts. In closing, it suffices to say that in a city which is known internationally and deservedly as a top destination for the arts and for its cultural life – as well as being the birthplace of the most renowned popular band of all time – Liverpool City Council’s new policy is a non-starter. We therefore respectfully ask Liverpool City Council to think again and come up with a policy that truly celebrates the vibrancy of street life without attempting to put street art and performance inside a tightly regulated box.