Like many buskers, I became a street performer on the spur of a moment. Always a keen guitarist and singer, I went out on the streets of Durham impulsively one evening, during fresher’s week in my student days, and sang late into the crisp October night. I had a surprisingly large look of on-lookers for company and a guitar case more full of coins then I might have expected by the time I had finished. I have played on the streets ever since that evening, in towns and cities across the UK and as far away as the US of A. The spontaneity and the informality of the street is hugely attractive to me as a performer, and few streets hold greater appeal than the ancient cobbles of York. As a boy I spent a miserable term at York Minster School for Choirboys. As a man, I have spent countless happier afternoons and evenings serenading shoppers and passersby on Parliament Street and Coney Street in this most ancient of cities. I love York, its history, its atmosphere and its overwhelming beauty. I have spent ten years singing in its public spaces.
Last Wednesday I was stopped mid-song by a council official who accused me of street trading because I had a sign with suggested contributions for my CDs in my case, and called the police in an effort to have me removed. My treatment was heavy-handed to say the least. I posted about this incident on facebook and the story spread like wildfire, that post has now been seen by 1,747,000 people and counting. My buskers permit was ‘suspended’ the next day pending an ‘investigation’.
York City Council have operated a compulsory badge scheme for street performers since 2005. Would-be performers have to apply to the council for a permit and pass an audition as well as signing up to a list of terms and conditions. In recent times it has become harder to get a permit, and many people have been turned away multiple times after being told that ‘York was full’. It seems that the problems I had encountered were not unique. ASAP! campaigns for open public spaces and policies that support street culture. The situation in York has reached a point where the local authority are behaving in an unduly restrictive and arbitrary manner and are stifling street culture rather than supporting it. The legal basis of the permit scheme is very unclear. I have been told that if I busk without a permit, the police will be called to move me on. It is, however, uncertain what powers they would be using to do so, when I will have committed no offence. ASAP is calling on the Council to forget calling the police and to abandon their busking permit scheme instead, replacing it with a new busking policy that opens up the public spaces of York to spontaneous expressions of grassroots art and culture.
The streets are where life happens. Street performers can bring a unique sense of place to a city. They create a sense of well being and foster the chances of serendipitous encounters. Policies that are unduly restrictive, as York Council’s has become, risk causing damage to street culture, and, by extension, the wider community. When the local authority denies people fluid access to public space it unwittingly reduces the variety of interactions on offer and reduces the potential for transformational encounters. That is why the Keep Streets Live campaign has sprung back into action. During these dark economic times, we need more spontaneity and variety, not less. The Council should be a steward of the public good, not a gatekeeper exercising capricious authority. I, for one, will continue to perform on the streets of York, and I don’t need a badge from the Council in order to sing my songs. See you on Parliament Street, and, until then, Keep Streets Live!
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