Worry in Westminster

Worry in Westminster

It seems that we are entering worrying times in Westminster, and that the Council are moving towards proceeding with a licensing proposal.

Despite our better efforts, including some great work by our former Director Dave Southern, it seems that Westminster feel that the Street Performers’ Association which we revitalised is not doing enough to deal with problems on the ground which amount to 2,000 complaints about busking annually.


For whatever reason the plan put in place at the meeting we attended earlier in the year has not been implemented, so cannot be deemed to have failed. We were promised extensive support in talking to other local stakeholders to make them aware of the new complaints procedure that would be routed directly to performers who were pitch-side and able to respond instantly but this support never materialised. Westminster SPA put together a website, code of conduct and offered free membership of the SPA to all who supported and agreed to abide by the code.

Westminster are making promises that it will be ‘performer led’ but these in practice are worthless. The Council themselves have ultimate authority over the process and licensing under Section V is a one-way contract where performers are legally bound, under threat of criminal prosecution, to accept whatever conditions are imposed. The result of the proposal is a simple ‘divide and rule’ scenario, creating two tiers of performers; one of which is entitled and legalised and the other marginalised and excluded.

The fact that proposals have been changed unilaterally by WCC indicates that their intentions are not to be trusted and is deeply troubling, although ironically this fact has lost them the support of the few performers who were on board with the license, unified our community and strengthened our campaign. The recent incident involving Sammi Jay where an enforcement officer unlawfully seized her CD’s has also fostered more mistrust of the Council.


KSL can vouch for the effectiveness of CPN’s (or other ASB legislation) in dealing with problem buskers because we deal with many cases where they have been issued. Even in cases where KSL believe there are genuine grounds for appeal most buskers do not have the inclination and/or funds to go through the court process. In fact our main concern has been that Community Protection Notices are too powerful a tool and leave performers vulnerable to abuse.


We firmly believe that a ‘crackdown’ of a few days will deal with the perpetrators, and that this would probably have to be repeated once every few months. Simple afternoon pitch walk with your enforcement Officers, Police and performer representatives would suffice. This seems very resource-light in comparison with licensing which is bureaucratic, open to legal challenge, will attract adverse publicity and disproportionately affect those who are NOT causing a problem.  And of course there will still be the additional duties of enforcement on the ground to deal with which will be increased as in addition to genuine problems there must also be checks on those who are busking responsibly but simply do not have a license.


Westminster have access to a wealth of experience in the form of Keep Streets Live, The Musicians’ Union, Equity, Busk In London and others. We’re currently working successfully with Local Authorities in dozens of UK towns/cities, and see no reason why this couldn’t be the same. Between us we really should be able to make something work, and I believe the chances of that are greatly increased by Westminster working with us rather than against us.

Please support the Westminster SPA Crowdfunder to help keep their website active, and if anyone can attend the next meeting in London on 19th November that would be fantastic.

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.