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!

 

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…