What’s Next? Dancing In The Streets Made Illegal?

What’s Next? Dancing In The Streets Made Illegal?

Written by Philippa Morgan Walker, ASAP/KeepStreets Live Associate Director and Journalist

On the 24th of October 2013, something unusual happened in North London. A collection of people (some more well-known than others) organised a mass protest busk to oppose a heavy-handed, unimaginative street performance licence scheme that would restrict what can and can’t be done in the borough’s public space. For example, the playing of wind instruments in Camden’s public space would be a punishable offence. In an act of defiance, the humble kazoo recruited justice-loving people with a faint musical ability and formed… The Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra!!

It’s not every day you witness 150+ people humming/blowing kazoos and generally making merry outside Camden Town tube station in unison; even more surprising is that the collective joy was not spurred on by a tipple or a pint. Musicians, buskers, artists, lovers of culture, Camden residents, disgruntled councillors and police officers fighting back smiles, congregated in the streets in the midst of the ‘consultation’ process for proposals of regulating street performance in Camden Borough. Add star Bill Bailey, activist/comedian Mark Thomas, musician Billy Bragg, the world-leading guitarist Jon Gomm and ASAP’s/Keep Streets Live Jonny Walker to the throng and you’ve got a real buzz and a honeypot for media. From playing the Citizen Kazoo Orchestra’s perfected rendition of the Star Wars ‘Death March’ to off-the-cuff performances from Bill, Billy et al, the two-hour long protest busk highlighted how essential spontaneous street culture is to London’s vibrancy.

The best stories have layers and there’s such a complex interplay of tensions between public space and residents, music lovers and haters, freedom fighters and stiff red tape, police, kazoo songs and political speeches, council officials with a weak grasp on telling the truth to rolling cameras, the slow death of the British high street, council cuts and the basic human right to sing a song on the paving stones of the UK. What a hash! I’m not a political journalist, as is blatantly obvious. I cut my teeth writing catwalk stories for VOGUE.com and discussing shoes with bags and bags with shoes for glossy magazine titles. My concern is for our high street. Up and down the country, the heart of town centres are draining of colour and streets look like clones of one another. The UK’s high streets are rapidly becoming dull and lack-lustre places where you’d rather dash through and then complete one’s shopping online, to avoid the moronic repetition of the same retailers and the craning necks of CCTV. And yet, street performers add vibrancy, value and a much-needed sense of local community to our streets.


A good busker is like a street angel, a beacon of light and a centre of gravity for vulnerable, homeless, lonely people. And then there’s the unexpected joy of hearing a talented musician delight you with their version of ‘Fast Car’ as you whisk through another day. Busking is not begging – it’s an art form with a survival eco-system where the effective performer doesn’t go hungry. There’s a load of smart social history and cultural heritage one could pull up here but for the purpose of time, settle with this: Socrates used the street as a stage. At ASAP/Keep Streets Live we seek to lift the public perception of busking and train performers with First Aid skills, share approaches for helping the homeless and much more.

Socrates teaching Perikles and others

Socrates teaching Perikles and others

Of late, the Association of Street Artists and Performers (ASAP) and its campaigning arm, Keep Streets Live, has been hot on the campaign trial to protect the rights of buskers and street entertainers in Camden, London from what would be the UK’s most restrictive and astonishingly harsh busking license scheme that would criminalise busking outside of its barricades and codes of conduct. (Playing a flute in the street would be illegal and punishable by a £1,000 fine. If you don’t pay that fine in 28 days then the council will sell your flute. Slap! slap! Get back in line, people of the machine.) I attended a council meeting on 22nd October, 2013 at Camden Town Hall where I saw a Labour-led council approve a policy, without a genuine consultation process taking place. This policy would change the law, criminalise activities that are basic forms of human rights and make life generally more miserable for the creative community at large.

Hey, Camden Council! A consultation is when you inform, discuss and reshape affected parties, under democratic law, about proposals or changes in law you wish to make so that the just outcome is achieved. This was not the case here. 155 people (that’s right, ONLY ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY FIVE PEOPLE) completed a cleverly-worded questionnaire that aimed to serve the desires of the policy makers. Buskers were framed as being the cause for petty crimes. Evidence for this insulting, naive, ludicrous and stupid claim, please! Street performance was linguistically painted as a nuisance, as antisocial behaviour and as something that police need to ‘deal’ with. The conclusive categories for this consultation lumped ‘all’ with ‘most people’ so that councillors could declare that the results of the quiz fell into favour of the policy.

FAST FORWARD TWO DAYS, Councillor Abdul Hai is quoted on BBC TV stating that 65% of Camden’s residents approve the proposed busking policy. That’s a seriously massaged statistic! I spoke to this man at the Camden Town Hall asking him if he would talk to Keep Streets Live properly and consult over this policy – an empty stutter followed my reasonable question. I watched Councillor Hai roll his eyes and arrogantly dismiss Jonny Walker’s plea for reason in the deputation. With sadness I listened from the gallery at the Town Hall as the policy gained traction amongst the cabinet on twisted points – ‘Camden’s residents cannot sleep because of repetitive nuisance busking’. All reasonable people will agree that residents have rights and that losing sleep due to anti-social behaviour is not acceptable, so pedalling the policy with this point will draw in popular support but this is a clever PR spin. The Association of Street Artists and Performers and Keep Streets Live support residents, buskers and the proper use of community space alike. The truth that isn’t being spoken here is this – there have not been anywhere near the volume of residents disturbed by buskers as the Council will have you believe. 65% of residents DO NOT support this. There have been 108 complaints in an entire year related to busking and a large portion of these ‘complaints’ are more like observations. I quote Jonny Walker in an earlier campaigning blog on the evidence:

I have conducted a through analysis of the 108 complaints received in the entire borough of Camden in the last year relating to busking.

42 separate people made one complaint in the year
5 people complained twice
3 people complained three times
3 people complained four times
1 person complained nine times
1 person complained eleven times
1 person complained fifteen times

This means that means that 56 of the 108 total complaints were made by 9 people in the entire Borough of Camden for an entire year.

Many of these complaints are spurious or seem to be complaining about the fact that a busker is there AT ALL:

Complainant 27 : ‘Busking on Camden Lock’
Complainant 25 : ‘Busking on Camden High Street’
Complainant 55: ‘Busker on Canal Tow Path on Oval Road’
Complainant 37: ‘Reporting Busking near Canal Bridge’
Complainant 17: ‘Busker – has been there a number of times – Camden Lock’
Many of these ‘complaints’ are objecting to the very presence of the busker on the street and could well reflect the prejudice of the person calling in. No account is made in the log as to whether the complaint was valid or what investigation was made. This log constitutes a very flimsy evidence base for the introduction of the policy and leaves it wide open to legal challenge. There may be a small minority of residents who feel very strongly that busking should be strictly controlled or banned altogether but is it the job of the council to mould the culture of Camden around the desires of a small group of people, or rather to keep in mind the common good and act on behalf of all who live, work and visit Camden and make it the wonderful place it is.

Councillor Abdul Hai, please tell the truth. Do not use PR spin to weave politics into the fabric of our society. We care about residents too. 220,000+ people live in Camden. 108 univestigated complaints in 365 days, in one of the busiest, noisiest and most hectic boroughs in London is rather conservative, in my humble opinion. YES, take these complaints seriously but don’t hold a megaphone to the mouthpiece of a minority, without speaking to the majority or even doing any homework on the real issues.

Keep the vibrancy in our public spaces - support grassroots culture!

Keep the vibrancy in our public spaces – support grassroots culture!

As Bill Bailey puts it, ‘Playing a kazoo in the street will be illegal if this policy goes through. It’s utter madness… Busking is part of Britain’s cultural heritage. It’s about freedom, entertainment and reaching out to community’.

What do I mean by freedom fighting, ASAP/Keep Streets Live followers? Well… If lies are softly spoken, then we will blow our kazoos louder and shout the truth out. This ain’t over until our human rights lawyer sings in the streets…



Press: IndyRikki On Camden Council’s Shame

Press: IndyRikki On Camden Council’s Shame

IndyRikki.Wordpress.com, 20 November 2013

On Monday 11th November, Camden Council voted to introduce a draconian new licensing scheme to tightly control busking and street performance in a controversial move that will likely change the face of the popular tourist destination by introducing a heavy-handed ban on spontaneous music from any public area. The policy is backed up with enforcement fines of up to £1000 and the power to seize and sell musicians’ instruments!

That night outside Camden Town Hall, campaign groups, and many individuals who would be affected, waited in the vain hope that councillors would listen to the arguments and vote with their conscience rather than along party lines.


a-busk-vote (1)

Inside the hall, combined deputations were allowed both for and against the proposed law, with each side given just 7 minutes to address the members.

First up were Roy Walker, Josie Kelly, and Jessica Crannish, speaking in favour of the legislation.

Roy Walker claimed that buskers make a considerable income, and that the licence fees were modest, comparing it to a recent scheme in Liverpool where buskers require £100 public liability insurance on top of a licence fee. He said that the scheme would promote considerate and responsible busking, dealing with anti-social elements. He said he suspected that many street entertainers were not declaring earnings for tax or benefit purposes (though no evidence has been offered for this).

Roy said that a crackdown in neighbouring Westminster had led to “large numbers” of “very noisy and inconsiderate buskers and bands” arriving in the belief that anything goes in Camden. The noise has apparently made “normal life almost impossible” for the “Community” in Camden. He said that complaints had repeatedly been met with responses ranging from indifference to hostility – “proof” that a voluntary code would not work. He said that Council and police resources to address the problem were not sustainable in the long-term. He claimed that one particular councillor as well as busker representatives had said that if people didn’t like it they should move – he asked “where to?”. The accusation later received condemnation and was refuted by both parties.

He finished by repeating his claim that street entertainment is “financially very lucrative”, so the law would need to be applied borough-wide to avoid displacement.

Next Jessica Crannish claimed that buskers “camp outside” her flat, regularly busking for 10 or 11 hours at a stretch. She said that clearly they were unable to “self-regulate”, and that the law was not an infringement of any musician’s rights because there were plenty of registered venues around the borough.

She said that other laws and regulations were not able to deal with the problems quoting the Head of Camden’s Regulatory Services, that if it were the case, Camden would simply exert those powers. She acknowledged Camden has a lot of ambient noise, but that this was different to hours of unwelcome music.

Last was Josie Kelly, speaking “on behalf of residents in and around the High Street”. She spoke of years of thundering drums and PA systems that can be heard several streets away night and day and compared it to a live concert. Speaking of huge crowds spilling into the road, she described it as “an accident waiting to happen” (although no evidence was forthcoming that there had ever been any sort of accident). She demanded that the licensing must include an “ID order, as they are operating on the public highway”.

Josie finished by somewhat blowing everyone’s argument out of the water with a contradictory claim that due to increased enforcement efforts this summer (presumably using the laws that Jessica claimed didn’t exist?), “buskers were not present, and the atmosphere in Camden had been friendlier than ever”.

I’m pretty sure that buskers were present this year – certainly Roy and Jessica seemed to believe so, but in Josie’s world it seems that a total ban would be the ideal.

Councillor Naylor, an advocate of the new law, said he’d had many complaints of what he described as “extreme busking”, but asked the deputation to explain what they thought was acceptable, to avoid the impression that they were against all busking.

Roy Walker responded that Camden had many key workers on shifts whose daytime sleep shouldn’t be disturbed by music. He said noisier bands had licensed venues to play in. And he said that, yes, council enforcers and police HAD controlled busking over the summer, but that people with acoustic guitars had been “permitted to continue” while amplified music and drums “had been stopped”.

Councillor Callaghan (the Deputy Leader) told us that Josie had visited her many times to complain about noise, and then asked Roy Walker (who it turns out is the Chair of Camden Community and Policing Consulting Group) about the policing costs there had been this year. Although he couldn’t give a figure, he said costs had been substantial as this year a busking team of a police officer and council officer had been in place at weekends and evenings, and that in these austere times the budget is tight and they should be doing something more useful.

The deputation against the proposal comprised Jonny Walker, David Webster, Vince Jonesh, and Chester Bingley.

Jonny Walker, the founder of the Association of Street Artists and Performers, first pointed out to Roy Walker that the Liverpool scheme has been withdrawn after a judicial review, and the Council is now working with the Musicians’ Union and busker representatives to find an equitable solution. He presented a petition signed so far by 4,280 people asking for the proposed law to be dropped and instead to set up a public forum for residents, buskers and professional bodies to create a best practice guide built on mutual respect and genuine dialogue.


Jonny spoke of the wide range of powers, that with proper and thorough application would solve the recognised problems without the need for new legislation. The legislation would radically redefine “public space” unlike the example of TfL London Underground often cited (which is private space). With its licensing conditions, admin and heavy penalties the new law would prevent impromptu and informal performances of music leading Camden becoming the most restricted borough in the country and destroying its vibrancy.

Under the law, if a 17 year old boy wants to go out and spontaneously perform a new song he’s written that day, he would face a criminal record, a fine, and the possible seizure of his musical instrument. An elderly clarinet player living in poverty would have to pay out £47 and wait 20 working days to find out if he’s a “fit and proper person” to continue busking. The new law will further marginalise the most excluded and the most needy, people who would normally look to the Labour party to protect them.

The problems identified in forming the policy arise mostly in one part of the borough, and there is no legal basis to bring in borough-wide legislation under the London Local Authorities Act. Also very few of the complaints reach the threshold for the Council to consider regulatory remedy, while Police Chief Inspector Penny Mills conflates the issue with “organised criminal networks” with no evidence for such alarmist claims. The proposed laws are way disproportionate to any real evidence of problems.

Jonny also pointed out that buskers often act as civil beacons, giving directions, stopping fights, calling the police when trouble is spotted, talking to the lonely, and contributing greatly to shared public spaces, caring deeply about the ecology of the street. But buskers have been given no part in the drafting of this law, which is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Next up was Vince Jonesh, a long-term resident of Camden High Street, some of whose artwork has been seen on Star Wars, Star Trek, and at Tate Modern. He said he’d listened to the other residents, some of whom he knew, and did not recognise the problems they’d portrayed. He had not suffered the sort of noise levels described, and wondered if there had been any real independent audit. He was far more concerned about the dangers posed by unlicensed ice-cream traders than buskers – a more real public danger in his eyes. He said that busking gave young musicians a real alternative chance in life, and joked he’d been told he’d never get anywhere with his art, but then went on to have the first ever artwork in outer space.

David Webster then spoke as the National Organiser for Live Performance for the Musicians’ Union. On behalf of members he raised official objection to the policy and in particular asked that any reference to confiscation of instruments must be removed.

He said there was no substantiated evidence of a link between crime and busking, that a career in music is not, as suggested, “lucrative” and that the fees were disproportionate. Speaking of the Liverpool best practice guidance, he pointed out that ambient noise in the street is high, and a busker needs to be able to reach a small radius above this in order to be effective. He also confirmed that Camden already have powers to combat nuisance, and that since using them this summer, the number of complaints had reduced.

He referred to minutes of a council meeting held on 29th October last year, where a proposal was turned down of a trial period to develop a code of practice through co-operation between residents, council and buskers. No reason was given and no response given by the council when the MU queried it. The policy seemed to be a response to just 108 complaints, of which 56 were made by just 9 people (one of whom made 15 of them!). Given this small number in one year in an area of 220,000 residents, the legislation is neither fair nor democratic.

He finished by saying that if Liverpool and Bournemouth councils were both able to consider amicable and workable policies for busking, then why couldn’t Camden allow a trial period of meaningful dialogue with representative organisations.

Councillor Bucknell asked the deputation whether they thought all buskers were affluent, would be able to fill in email forms instantly, and be able to pay the fees, or might a lot of them be underdogs, and just “wither into the darkness”.

Jonny replied that, having busked in Hampstead at the invitation of the local business association, he may be one of the more affluent buskers in the UK, but that the majority of buskers earn nothing like even a minimum wage, with many of them on the margin and likely to be intimidated at paying £47, waiting 20 working days, with a right of appeal from residents and then visiting the inappropriate setting of a magistrates court if they wanted to appeal a rejection. He felt the whole purpose of the legislation was to create a difficult and “unbuskable” situation.

Another councillor asked if the deputation could offer any answers to residents concerned about the location of some busking and high amplification, to which Jonny referred to the Environmental Protection Act 1990 that already allows officers to serve notices and to seize instruments if those notices aren’t complied with. This is more proportionate because offenders are given a clear chance to leave. There is also the Public Order Act, and the Control of Pollution Act 1974 which prevents amplified music after 9pm. Sensible use of these, along with a forum for buskers and residents to identify and resolve issues, would add to the sense of community in Camden, rather than the current divisive and repressive policy.

The last question, from Councillor McCormack, raised her concern that police were being drawn away from Gospel Oak to deal with issues in Camden, and asked whether this was appropriate use of resources.

Jonny pointed out that with just 56 complainants out of 220,000 residents, there was certainly an inappropriate diversion of resources, when more serious problems were going on in the streets. A very small and vocal minority with genuine issues had lobbied hard, and the result was a reactive policy rather than a pro-active and a just one. Rushed policy-making is often sloppy policy-making, and the idea that buskers’ licence fees would pay to police a policy they opposed went against all natural justice.

Councillor Abdul Hai (Cabinet Member for Community Safety), who I’d heard making several unprofessional and heckling comments during the deputation, then spoke. His was a politician’s speech, speaking of the Council’s desire to see busking continue to add to the vibrancy of the area, but with increasing “industrial” levels of amplification, the Council had come up with a “light touch” policy, a compromise, striking a balance between the needs of buskers and residents. It needed to be borough-wide so as not to “confuse”, and to provide a “consistent legal framework”.

Councillor Hai claimed there were no laws available to deal with street entertainment, except the Local Authorities Act, under which this new legislation was framed. He said that he hoped that buskers would work with the council and that fines would not be necessary, and he said that self-regulation had failed (although in fact the proposal for a forum and code of conduct was mysteriously ignored by the council). He said that police had begged the council to introduce new controls, so as to allow resources to be used for more important issues.

Councillor Hai was mildly heckled from the public gallery when he stated that Jonny Walker had been “given the privilege”, last September to speak with Council officers about the proposals – some people pointing out it was a “right” not a “privilege” in a democratic system.

At the end of Hai’s speech, Councillor Don Williams was anxious to raise a point of order, claiming that Abdul Hai had misled the chamber over whether there was any other legislation already available to enforcers. He was talked down by the mayor, but then Councillor Bucknell also called out that Hai was giving false or inaccurate information to the councillors, quoting his telling the licensing committee that incidents and complaints had reduced this year as a result of implementing those available controls which he now claimed didn’t exist.

In the short debate that followed, Councillor Bucknell put forward a proposal that the matter be deferred and returned to the Culture & Environment Scrutiny Committee, to reconsider the idea of a code of conduct and so that everyone can have a say, including residents, buskers, police and council. He said that what may have seemed like a good idea at the time is now clearly not so good and needs consideration. He spoke passionately that the ‘underdog’ would be deeply affected by the policy and gave an example of constituents living in a homeless hostel who increase their meagre income with some busking.

He also said the chamber had been seriously misled over the need for this law, repeating that at the last licensing meeting he’d been told that the application of existing laws had brought the problem under control.

He echoed Jonny Walker’s observation that once freedoms are lost, they are difficult to get back, and he didn’t want Camden to be known as the borough that had introduced this repressive and heavy-handed legislation.

Councillor Eslamdoust (Licensing Committee Chair) claimed again that existing laws are not applicable to buskers, who move around. She also said the new law had to be borough-wide to stop the problem from simply shifting location. She dismissed self-regulation, saying that buskers had had a chance to self-regulate and failed. She said that Councillors should vote to protect residents, claiming that the regulations were very proportionate and designed to stop buskers “trampling” over the rights of others, then adding that she “values buskers contribution to our culture”.

With her off-hand delivery and seeping generalisations, she attracted some heckling from the public gallery, with people asking for evidence, calling her a political careerist, and laughing at her claim to value busking. But she continued by stating that the council had had to pay out the entire costs of clearing up problems caused by buskers, (again without reference to what these costs were or amounted to), and that the very modest licence fees would help that.

The borough solicitor then addressed whether there were existing powers, saying that although there were, Camden Council were actually establishing a licensing regime (with enforcement powers attached) under a statutory provision of the London Authorities Act 2000, rather than introducing new laws per se.

If you’ve read this far, you might assume that this is a Tory Council, but it’s not! The policy is being pushed by Labour, and fiercely opposed by the Lib Dems and Tories.

Just before the vote, another Tory councillor rose to claim that Labour had got itself in a real mess over this proposal, but he was shouted down, and then the public gallery started taking the mick and calling for order and shouting out “arrest these people”, and someone called to the council members “are you busking now, you lot?”

So the vote was taken, and it demonstrated the poor state of democracy in such decisions as everyone voted dutifully along party lines, with 26 Labour councillors (some surely ashamed by their actions?) beating the 17 Tory and Lib-Dem votes, while people in the public gallery occasionally ‘baa-ed’ loudly like sheep.

Outside the chamber, a small crowd listened to Councillor Hai trying to sound reasonable in a further conversation with Jonny Walker – with his buzzwords of “light touch” and “compromise” he sounded like a politico-automaton – a fine example of everything that’s wrong with the political system – as he ignored sensible arguments and proposals and kept to his party line. The art of debate is depressingly dead in these situations, with the politician pretending but failing to listen while pumping a pre-prepared argument at ever more frustrated constituents.

Jonny warned the councillor that, as well as challenging the policy through courts, he was advocating a campaign of mass peaceful civil disobedience, intending to shame the council with footage of musicians having their instruments confiscated by police.


Outside the building, a small kazoo orchestra and the ‘Rhythms of Resistance’ samba band played for a while to demonstrate their disdain for the policy, which is set to come into force next February. However in respect for local residents the samba mostly played outside the Chamber on the Euston Road side, and both groups stopped playing soon after 9pm.

november 2013 ham & high headline re camden busking vote

With a planned legal challenge, and a robust campaign, followed next year by mass civil disobedience, Camden may yet be shamed into a U-turn, or facing the risk of greater enforcement costs and very bad publicity. Watch this space and visit http://keepstreetslive.com for campaign news.

Press: BBC On ASAP’s Legal Challenge

Press: BBC On ASAP’s Legal Challenge

BBC London, 20 November 2013

Campaigners have threatened legal action against Camden Council over its decision to license buskers.

The Association of Street Artists and Performers (ASAP!) has written to the council asking it to reconsider or face judicial review proceedings.

The authority approved the legislation on 12 November after increased noise complaints, mainly from residents in Camden Town, north London.

ASAP! said the legislation would have a “detrimental effect” on the community.

The council has 14 days to respond to the letter before the group begins judicial review proceedings.

‘Potential criminals’
From February, any person busking in Camden will need to be licensed. A standard annual licence will cost £19 and permit performances between 10:00 and 21:00.

ASAP! director Jonny Walker said the legal challenge was necessary.

“Whilst we recognise that Camden Council have acted to respond to the complaints of some residents, this legislation is an incredibly blunt instrument that will have a detrimental effect on the cultural life of the borough by effectively turning all buskers into potential criminals,” he said.

Councillor Abdul Hai, of Camden Council, said: “We have today received a letter from solicitors acting on behalf of Jonathan Walker and ASAP! which we will be considering and responding to in due course.”