Criminalising Culture in Leicester Square

Criminalising Culture in Leicester Square

Westminster Council-stop the prosecution of young musician Dan Wilson aka ‘Dawson’, support your street artists.

On Wednesday 20th August at 10am a talented young musician who has represented Great Britain in the world loop championships (http://youtu.be/Zh2gvYsWZP4) appeared in court in Westminster answering criminal charges of ‘illegal street trading’ and using a speaker in the street for a 10 minute busk in Leicester Square early this year with a couple of CDs of his own music with a sign saying ‘suggested donation £5’ and giving details of his Facebook page. This was his fourth court appearance relating to this one incident of spontaneous live music and he now faces a fifth court hearing in November.

If convicted this graduate of Leeds College of Music will have a life-long criminal record which will affect his ability to travel aboard, an essential part of life as a touring musician, and face heavy fines.

Westminster Council’s determination to prosecute Dawson comes against a backdrop of the Mayor of London’s #backbusking campaign launched in April with the intention of making London ‘the most busker-friendly city in the world’. Boris Johnson has convened a task force designed to remove obstacles to performing in the capital city which includes Westminster Council, the Musician’s Union and the Keep Streets Live Campaign. Despite this, Westminster Council have decided to spend thousands of pounds on a heavy handed criminal prosecution against Dawson perhaps to make an example of him lest any other musician decides to commit the ‘crime’ of playing music in Leicester Square. The extravagant waste of scarce public resources involved in using the police and courts to criminalise an activity which actually brings colour and enjoyment to the streets of our cities is very troubling

If you share the view of the Keep Streets Live Campaign that this protracted prosecution is a scandalous misuse of public time and money and that it represents a campaign of legal harassment against a promising young musician please email the cabinet member for Public Protection at Westminster Nickie Aiken on naiken@westminster.gov.uk and also the Head of Legal and Democratic services at Westminster Peter Large on plarge@westminster.gov.uk who, bizarrely, maintains that it is in the ‘public interest’ to spend thousands of pounds prosecuting Dawson. Politely point out to them that it serves no ones interest to criminalise culture and that the public don’t need protection from music makers who are bringing enjoyment and colour to public spaces.

In response to emails they received when this news went public, Joseph McBride, Cabinet Officer for Communications and Strategy for Westminster stated that ‘…street performance can give rise to real problems for local residents and businesses and in such cases it may be necessary to ask buskers who are causing a public nuisance [emphasis mine] to desist and, in exceptional circumstances [emphasis mine] make use of our legal powers as a last resort’.

Dawson had never performed in Westminster before and only played for a matter of minutes on the evening he was challenged. He is an accomplished musician and was not causing any nuisance, so why is he being targeted?

Metropolitan Police have justified police action against buskers in Leicester Square by claiming that ‘Spontaneous, unauthorised, unlicensed street performing causes anti-social behaviour and is a driver of crime’. Repeated requests for evidence of this claim under the Freedom of Information Act have been fruitless. However, it may be of interest to note that recent police crackdowns on buskers in Leicester Square, including the well publicised arrest of The King’s Parade, winners of the Mayor’s GIGS competition to find ‘ London’s best buskers’ have been partly funded by Heart of London Business Improvement District, picking and choosing legislation to use against buskers on an arbitrary basis. This is a troubling example of private interests hijacking civic and cultural freedoms. On its website the Heart of London BID states that it promises  ‘quality, licensed street entertainment’ but Westminster do not issue busking licenses resulting in the absurd situation where award winning musicians who have represented the UK internationally are criminalised under the pretense of targeting antisocial behaviour. This is a Kafka-esque farce in which the police claim, entirely without evidence, that unlicensed busking causes anti-social behaviour in which a private company funds police action against buskers whilst claiming to support ‘quality, licensed entertainment’ and in which Westminster Council do not even issue licenses for busking so that even if a musician wished to obtain one, they couldn’t! London can, and must, do better by its musicians and culture makers if it wishes to avoid a descent into a dull, authoritarian conformity on its streets.

 

Busking and Public Space Protection Orders

Busking and Public Space Protection Orders

The Keep Streets Live Campaign is a not for profit organisation that advocates for public spaces that are open to informal offerings of art and music. We are concerned that the provisions in the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 for local authorities to apply for Public Spaces Protection Orders to restrict ‘activities that carried out within the authorities area which have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’ could easily be used to target buskers. The ‘reasonable grounds’ for introducing these new powers are so wide-ranging, all-encompassing and open to subjective interpretation that they might well be used to target informal performances of art and music on the grounds that some people don’t like buskers and find them annoying. In a House of Lords debate on January 21st Lord Clement-Jones, author of the Live Music Act 2012, sought reassurances from the government that the new legislation would not be used in an over-zealous way against musicians and street artists. Lord Clement-Jones asked ‘will local authorities ensure that these powers are exercised with proper consideration of the balance between freedom of expression and respect for private and family life, and will also point out the considerable existing body of nuisance and noise-abatement powers which local authorities already have to hand? Should we not be encouraging rather than discouraging busking, which is such an important part of our urban culture?’ The government response from Lord Taylor of Holbeach was that the legislation is aimed at ‘the antisocial minority who give street performers a bad name’. However, given that there is no requirement for judicial pre-authorisation for these new powers, they are wide open to abuse and the problems of differentiating between ‘the antisocial minority’ and ‘genuine performers’ are manifold.

 

In Birmingham buskers have been given letters stating that from October 2014 the police and local authority can apply for PSPOs against buskers and implying that these powers will be used if buskers don’t sign up to an extensive range of restrictions such as auditions, pre-booking only authorised spots and strict time limits on pitches. In this way PSPOs become a covert way of restricting freedom of expression under the pretense of protecting the quality of life of those in the locality. In reality local authorities have an enormous range of existing statutory powers which can be used to target noise nuisance and antisocial behaviour such as the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Public Order 1986. These new, additional powers have great potential for abuse and misuse and will need to be closely scrutinised in their application and challenged when necessary to ensure that vitally important civic and cultural freedoms are not lost with all the adverse implications for a free and democratic society.

A Significant Anniversary

A Significant Anniversary

 What a journey! The Keep Streets Live Campaign was born two years ago with a simple but vital mission to advocate for public spaces that are open to informal offerings of art and music and to seek to build positive relationships between local authorities and street performers whilst developing policies that support and sustain street culture. The campaign was a response to Liverpool Council’s plans to introduce one of the most restrictive busking policies of any major UK city in July 2012 which included threats of trespass prosecutions against unlicensed buskers on the public highway, bans on under 18s and huge restrictions on where and when people could perform. 2012-08-22 16.20.332012-08-22 15.14.12 http://www.liverpoolconfidential.co.uk/Culture/Ged-Gibbons-v-Johnny-Walker http://www.liverpoolconfidential.co.uk/News-and-Comment/Exclusive-Liverpool-busking-policy-thrown-out

Challenging their decision with creativity and passion Liverpool’s grassroots cultural community asked the council to work alongside them and not against them to design a policy based on preserving spontaneity and openness to public space for art and music and using dialogue and communication to resolve disputes. To their immense credit, the council listened and just two years later they have partnered with Keep Streets Live to introduce a scheme based on partnership between buskers, the council and local businesses which will make it a pioneer amongst British cities for the way it encourages and nurtures buskers. An open busker’s forum will be held in Liverpool to which everybody is welcome to discuss ongoing issues. We will also meet regularly with the council to maintain positive relationships.

 

In March 2013 the campaign successfully challenged York City Council’s restrictive compulsory license scheme which required performers to apply in advance, audition and pay £40 per day if they wished to make CDs available. York Council abandoned their license scheme in response to our challenge but there is much work still to be done there to improve relationships between the council and the busking community. An open busker meeting is going to be held at El Piano, Grape Lane, YO1 7HU, in York at 6pm on Monday 14th July to discuss these issues. All who care about preserving street culture are welcome to this open meeting. Feel free to join the facebook event page and to invite friends along: https://www.facebook.com/events/264543563738841/

Lastly, our challenge to Camden Council’s Cromwellian anti-culture law continues. Lib Dem Peer Lord Clement-Jones, a well-known supporter of live music who brought in the Live Music Act in 2012 as a private member’s bill, has proposed the effective repeal of the law underpinning Camden’s draconian busking legislation in the House of Lords. Meanwhile the Court of Appeal will consider our ongoing legal challenge on the 6th of October. We will not let this unjust and repressive law remain unchallenged. Read more here: http://keepstreetslive.com/blog/2014/07/busking-laws-and-the-lords The Keep Streets Live Campaign is part of a London mayoral taskforce with a mandate to, in the words of Boris Johnson, make the capital into the ‘world’s most busker friendly city’. We will keep you posted on all developments and have much work to do in the capital city where attitudes towards buskers are best described as medieval! Meanwhile if you have any questions or comments or want to get involved with the campaign in any way, please feel free to reply to this email. There are regional Keep Streets Live facebook groups which you are welcome to join to keep in touch with our work.

With thanks,

Jonny Walker

Director of Keep Streets Live Campaign

jonnywalker@me.com

http://keepstreetslive.com

Liverpool https://www.facebook.com/groups/keepstreetslive/

Camden https://www.facebook.com/groups/keepstreetslivecamden/

Yorkshire and Humber https://www.facebook.com/groups/KeepstreetsliveYorkshireandHumber/

London https://www.facebook.com/groups/keepstreetsliveinlondon/