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.
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, Lib-Dem and Green 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.
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.