Tag Archives: camden council

High Court gives green light to Camden anti-busking law

Campaign UPDATE 23rd March 2014

From Monday 24th March Camden Council have announced their intention to begin enforcement of their anti-busking law which turns singing in the street for fun into a potentially criminal offence. This week, the Keep Streets Live legal team lodged an application with the Court of Appeal. The legal challenge continues but meanwhile activists thought they would ‘celebrate’ Camden’s enforcement of the busking law with another outing of the Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra. They are advising all buskers NOT to sign up for Camden’s Coercive license scheme under any circumstances. You will only be encouraging them!

Religious processions and protest marches (or similar) are exempted from the requirement to hold licenses to busk, and so, a fit of righteous fervour sees the formation of The Holy Church of the Kazoo which will be holding their first religious protest busk on Monday 24th with a 1pm meeting for a 2pm outing on the streets of Camden outside HSBC near the tube station. Mark Thomas will be helping by drawing up a list of well loved religious tunes from all faiths and none to celebrate religious freedom in a musical way. https://www.facebook.com/events/417081838427421

There’s also a protest busk organised by ‘Meet and Jam’ on Sunday 23rd again outside HSBC from 2pm. Bring an instrument and strum a chord for justice… https://www.facebook.com/events/1511847325709032/

Keep Streets Live are asking for contributions towards the ongoing campaign for the Court of Appeal challenge: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/keep-streets-live-uk/x/2921332

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If you sing in the street or a park in the London Borough of Taliban, and a passer-by appreciates your voice, the authorities can surgically remove your vocal tract and sell it on the black market. Ok, that may be a marginally excessive interpretation of the law, but it’s not far off!

Camden’s new powers define busking as ‘provision of entertainment in the street’, so if you haven’t applied and paid for a busking licence and you ARE singing, you’re OK as long as it’s awful and no-one is entertained, but the moment a passer-by enjoys it you have actually stepped over the legal threshold and will be committing a criminal offence. If you have an instrument, they CAN seize and sell it if you don’t pay up to £1000 fine. The barrister representing the joyless Labour council agreed in court that this interpretation of the law was accurate. After a legal challenge, this morning’s decision by Judge Mrs. Justice Patterson, means the laws will now be in force throughout the Borough.

Rolled-Up Hearing

The hearing took place at the High Court on the 27th and 28th Feb, and was a ‘rolled-up hearing’ which means the judge decides whether there are grounds for a Judicial Review, and then if so, decides the outcome of that JR at the same time.

The case was brought against Camden Council by professional busker and founder of the Keep Streets Live campaign, Jonny Walker, who, through crowd-funding,  managed to raise much of the money needed to ensure he’d be able to pay agreed ‘protected costs’ in the worst possible outcome of a failed challenge and costs awarded against him.

Leigh Day solicitors hired the services of barrister David Wolfe QC, and Camden turned up in court with their legal team and two barristers, led by Clive Sheldon QC.

I sat in court both days, and heard the legal arguments, which I’ll try to distill down here. At the end of the first day, I was not very optimistic, because the judge, Mrs. Justice Patterson, seemed to be quite combative with David Wolfe, very accommodating with Mr. Sheldon, and was concerned to know how long they’d each need on the second day because she was “mindful that Camden wanted to get on and implement the legislation” and she was hoping to be able to give them a verdict before the weekend!

As it turned out, David Wolfe took his time on the Friday, and also gave her rather a lot to think about, so the hand-down was postponed a further week.

Legal Arguments

Camden’s proposed licensing scheme is based on powers given them under the London Local Authorities Act 2012. This Act allows London authorities to issue penalty notices, create licensing schemes, and gives them other powers to combat identified public nuisance.

Camden Council claim that they have identified busking as causing serious public nuisance in the Borough, and that they have brought in a “light touch” licensing regime which will “encourage” busking in the area while controlling situations that have been identified as causing problems.

Their scheme is Borough-wide, and forces buskers to apply for a license. If the musician intends to use any amplification, they have to jump through all sorts of hoops, pay a higher fee, and wait for weeks. Otherwise, they pay a £19 fee several days in advance, and are still subject to all manner of conditions. Breach of conditions, or busking without a licence, is a criminal offence, with up to £1000 fine, and Camden also have the power to seize musical instruments and/or amplification equipment, and sell it if any fine is unpaid.

The challenge had two main aspects. First, David Wolfe questioned whether Camden had provided enough evidence to trigger the legislation in the first place. Second, he questioned whether the legislation was compatible with human rights convention requirements over freedom of expression.

Camden mainly relied on a log of over a hundred telephone complaints received by the Council, but Mr. Wolfe went through these in detail, questioning whether they showed evidence that busking had been, is being, or is likely to cause ‘undue nuisance’. Camden’s scheme exempts certain groups and activities, including, for instance, morris dancers and Hare Krishna drummers. He pointed out that most entries on the log provided unsatisfactory information to be able to reach any conclusion about ‘undue nuisance’, and that one of the complaints was about morris dancers, and so won’t be resolved, and others spoke of ‘drummers’ which may well have been the exempt Krishnas given the absence of any other info.

He spoke at length about possible absurd scenarios raised by the rules. ‘Busking’ is defined as ‘provision of entertainment in the street’ (not necessarily for gain), so he gave example of someone singing a song on a sunny day on the way to work. If singing to himself, he is free to carry on, but if a fellow pedestrian starts enjoying the song and is entertained by it, then the singer starts to commit a criminal offence, and would have to either stop singing, or ask the other person to go away. A similar scene might be a young lad singing and playing the guitar in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. No problem there, and no licence required. As he’s particularly talented though, he draws a small crowd. He’s now become a criminal! Mr. Wolfe pointed out that under the human rights convention it was imperative for any criminal transgression to be “sufficiently foreseeable” which clearly it was not.

Although, Camden of course said they wouldn’t enforce the law in that situation, and a judge wouldn’t convict even if they did, the obvious response from the challengers is, why make it law then?

In terms of human rights, the argument is whether the restrictions are proportionate, respond to a pressing need, and that no less restrictive means are available to control the problem.

Camden claimed that it’s not over-restrictive because people can still busk in the rest of the country!

Mr. Wolfe referred to case law to show that supervision should be strict over ANY restriction, and that just because SOME singers MAY have caused genuine NUISANCE in a certain AREA at a PARTICULAR TIME, this couldn’t give rise to a restriction on ALL singers throughout the whole Borough at all times.

Camden stuck by their complaints log to show a ‘pressing need’, and they claimed other laws were not adequate to combat problems.

Mr. Wolfe pointed out that “less restrictive means” didn’t necessarily mean other already available law, and that Camden had framed bad legislation which could be rewritten to be far less restrictive. He asked also why the complaint log hadn’t contained an “action taken” column. This might have provided further evidence, but its absence suggested Camden may have actually breached an existing Section 79 requirement to respond to complaints, instead writing new legislation that may have been entirely unnecessary.

The hearing finished at around 3.30 on the Friday, and Mrs. Justice Patterson said she had plenty to ponder, was away the following week, and so would not be able to hand-down her verdict until this week.

This morning, the High court delivered its verdict backing the Council’s new policy. Jonny’s solicitors will lodge an appeal.

Statement by the Keep Streets Live Campaign:

“The generous support of many hundreds of people enabled to bring an historic High court challenge against Camden’s decision to introduce compulsory licenses for any person wishing to sing or play music in a public space within the borough.

We believe that the scheme is too wide in its definition of busking, that it has been introduced in response to inadequate evidence, to apply across the entire geographical area of the borough, and that it is disproportionate for the purposes of the Human Rights Act by interfering with the right to Freedom of Expression in a way which is neither necessary nor proportionate.

In the light of these points, which were convincingly argued in the High Court, we are disappointed that Mrs. Justice Patterson has seemingly taken at face value Camden’s argument that people making music on the streets have a low level of protection under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and has ruled that Camden’s sceme is necessary, proportionate and lawful.

We profoundly disagree with her judgement and will now seek to have this case heard by the Court of Appeal and to ask Camden not to enforce their policy unitl the case is heard by a higher court.

Informal and spontaneous performances of music are a vital part of Camden’s rich and diverse cultural heritage and need to be protected. Under Camden’s policy, even singing a protest song without a licence could be a criminal offence. From our perspective this makes the excessive interference with Article 10 rights clear and unambiguous. In a democratic society, singing in the streets should never be a potential criminal offence.

On behalf of the Keep Streets Live campaign I would like to re-iterate our desire to work alongside Camden Council and residents to address their genuine concerns and to develop a collaborative ‘best practice’ guide for busking, if they will withdraw their contentious policy.

In Liverpool, which like Camden, is a city famous for music and grassroots culture, we are working alongside the local council to develop practical guidance for street entertainment that works for all parties.

We invite Camden to learn from this approach and work with us, and not against us.”

 

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Camden Council in the dock over busking

As reported previously, Camden Council have drafted a licensing scheme for buskers, which is far-ranging and draconian. It wass due to take effect on Feb 1st, but campaigners launched a legal challenge in the High Court, postponing implementation of the new legislation until its legality is scrutinised. The hearing began today and is expected to conclude tomorrow.

I will write a full report of the hearing at the weekend, but in the meantime, here are my notes from today.

Professional busker Jonny Walker has set up a campaign organisation “Keep Streets Live” and has raised several thousand pounds towards the legal costs through a crowd-funding campaign. Leading human rights lawyers, Leigh Day, have secured the service of Queen’s Council David Wolfe, and he laid out the arguments against the new legislation this morning.

Full report later, but my feeling is not good. The judge, Mrs. Justice Patterson, seemed to continually question QC Wolfe, sometimes saying she was asking the questions she believed that Camden’s lawyers would want to ask. Later after lunch, Clive Sheldon QC spoke for Camden, and by contrast, the judge seemed to be helping him frame his arguments and even finish off his sentences for him. Now I’m not saying the judge was nobbled, bent, or in receipt of brown envelopes, not least because to do so may well be contempt of court or libellous, but I was certainly surprised and uneasy at what appeared to me to be a very different approach to dealing with the two opposing barristers.

Finally, while discussing how long the two sides would need to complete their arguments tomorrow, the judge said that she was aware that Camden were anxious to begin implementing their rules, and she was hoping therefore to hand down judgement at the end of the day rather than make them wait.

What worried me about this concern was that if she were to judge in favour of Jonny Walker and the legal challenge, then obviously Camden aren’t going to be able to implement at all, so the time factor would only come into play if the judgement is in Camden’s favour.

Now, I’m definitely not saying that the judge has already made up her mind before hearing all the arguments, as again, that suggestion may well be some form of contempt, but I’m surprised how she’s so concerned about the timing, when it may turn out not to be an issue at all, because the whole scheme may be unlawful.

I’ll tweet the result tomorrow at around 4.30, but if were a betting man, I’d have to say I think she’ll find against the challenge.

High Court set for challenge to Camden anti-busking law

Some good news!

As posted previously, despite celebrity backing for a campaign by professional busker Jonny Walker, Camden council went ahead and voted in a new law introducing a licensing system with draconian penalties, which will effectively ban any spontaneous music in its streets.

The law was due to come into force from tomorrow, 1st Feb, but after raising money by crowd-sourcing on indiegogo, Jonny has managed to launch a legal challenge which will be heard in the High Court at the end of February, together with an undertaking that the new rules will not be enforced until after the judgement (if at all).

With the possibility not only of radically changing the nature of Camden for ever, but also acting as a springboard for a similar crackdown in public areas throughout the UK, surely this new legislation is of serious public interest. But even before the next round of legal aid cuts takes effect, the sad fact remains that a hearing of this sort can only be safely undertaken by the rich, and the council can threaten to rack up its legal costs to dissuade and scare off legitimate challenges.

However, Jonny first went to court to ask for “protected costs” and the judge has agreed to limit any claim against him to just £7500. With just a couple of days to go, the indiegogo campaign has so far attracted around £7000, so after costs and indiegogo commissions, a good part of the fighting fund is in place, and a last push for donations may yet clinch it.

The hope is of course that Jonny will win the case, forcing Camden to rethink its approach. In which case, the funds raised will go towards establishing good practice forums to find sensible solutions to issues raised by residents, as well as training for young musicians.

The case will be heard on the 27th and 28th February – watch this space and Jonny’s site for updates and news then.

Shame of Camden council vote to ban spontaneous music and to control busking

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

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.

B busk vote

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.

C busk 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.

november 2013 ham & high headline re camden busking vote

Video of Camden Celebrity Busk against proposed licensing and instrument seizures

Camden Council looks set to introduce new controls on buskers in the area, with a pay-to-play licence scheme, and severe penalties of up to £1000 and even instrument seizure and sale.

Busker and campaigner, Jonny Walker, (http://keepstreetslive.com) has been working with comedy activist Mark Thomas (100 Acts of Minor Dissent), and after forming the Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra, they introduced an array of celebrity buskers in Camden High Street on 24th Oct 2013.

The line-up featured comedian/musician Bill Bailey, protest-singer Billy Bragg, and virtuoso guitarist Jon Gomm, and was compered by Mark Thomas. Jonny Walker explained the Labour Council proposals, spoke movingly of his own experiences as a busker, the connection to the homeless and the disadvantage, and the subterfuge of Camden Council (who tried to prevent him addressing their Cabinet meeting, and failed to respond to Freedom of Information requests.

A BBC film crew was in attendance, and Mark and Jonny managed to hijack their interview with Councillor Abdul Hai. After repeatedly being asked, he eventually and reluctantly agreed to meet with them before the next Council meeting.

This short video tries to capture the spirit of that day, which was blessed by Indian Summer-like weather.

For a full write-up and some photos, see https://indyrikki.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/camden-council-on-the-run-over-draconian-anti-busking-laws/

Kazoo protest over Camden’s draconian new busking bye-laws

This afternoon, Mark Thomas joined a ‘Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra’ of buskers in Camden, to highlight and protest proposed new bye-laws criminalising street music of all kinds. The presence of senior officers and intelligence suggested to me the possibility of future use against protestors.

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Camden High Street is a world-renowned tourist centre famed for its market, and its street culture. Part of that culture has always included music, with performers and buskers of all types entertaining visitors throughout the year.

But Labour-controlled Camden Borough Council apparently believes that current laws covering general and noise nuisance, already often used to move or close down performance, are nowhere near powerful enough. They want to bring in a licence system, charging more than a hundred pounds for a permit which must then be on display and which still allows ‘authorised’ officials to stop performances for any reason.

Anyone playing wind or percussion instruments (including any home-made perc like plastic bottles or bins!) and anyone using ANY amplification, will then be committing a CRIMINAL offence (with a £1000 max fine) if they are not displaying their licence.

New powers will also give police, council officials, and even authorised private contractors, the power to seize and confiscate instruments, and if any fine is not paid within 28 days, then the instruments can be sold. This is, I believe, the first time in UK law that the state can seize a person’s tools of trade, and it is certainly one of the most restrictive busking laws in the land.

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In response to the proposals, Johnny Walker, a well-established and accomplished travelling busker, has formed the campaign group, ‘Keep Streets Live’, and in association with comedian/activist Mark Thomas, who sees it as one of his ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’, they have formed the CKO (Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra) who performed this afternoon, in rather soggy conditions, outside Camden tube.

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At around 4.30, they set up an open mic, and handed out leaflets and kazoos, inviting all to brave the rain and join them in a medley of popular tunes.

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They were visited briefly by Johnny Bucknell, a local Tory councillor, who made a short speech despite some heckling. When I questioned him later, he told me he was in favour of special ‘busking areas’ rather than a licence system. So although against the Labour plans, he is, as is often the case with opposition politicians on either side, only offering something incrementally better, and while potentially an ally for the moment, is certainly not promoting any real freedom on behalf of buskers and street musicians.

Due to concerns over legal challenges under religion and equality laws, there is already a clause that gives exemption to Morris Dancers, and so, in solidarity, a folk violinist turned up this afternoon along with a Morris Dancer to entertain the kazooers during a well-earned break.

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Campaigners point out that buskers often travel from borough to borough, and even between cities, and if licences were required in each area it would be prohibitively expensive. Also, busking is by nature often a spontaneous business, and there is no recognition of this in any licensing system.

Kazoos are a great means of protest against the proposal, and should the law come in, they will be cheap to replace if seized. The orchestra has vowed to continue performances in Camden whether ‘legal’ or not, and they welcome all to join them (no experience necessary).

Although the proposals appear to be Council driven, there was a lot of interest from the Met this afternoon. Apart from around half a dozen police keeping an eye on proceedings, the campaigners received a visit from a Chief Inspector, an Inspector, and from Constable Catrell, who is well-known to activists as an intelligence-gathering baby-blue-tabarded Police Liaison Officer. Her cover story was that she was just a Camden bobby on the beat today, but she swiftly pocketed copies of the campaign literature, and was later seen driving away with the superiors in an unmarked car.

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Could the Met be a driving force in this attack on freedom? Perhaps Camden is a testing ground? It would make sense that the new bye-law be tried in an area particularly busy with buskers, and if “successful” as a control mechanism, could then be rolled out across the City. Could it then be used against noisy protests, or samba-driven marches? Given the current proposals I can’t see why not!

More info at The Association of Street Artists and Performers campaign site http://www.keepstreetslive.com where you can also sign their PETITION, or follow @keepstreetslive

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