By Jonny Walker, Founder and Director of the Keep Streets Live Campaign
As part of our ongoing mission to protect public space as a legitimate forum for informal performances of art and music , the Keep Streets Live Campaign has launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for a historic legal challenge against the decision of Camden Council to introduce draconian controls against busking across the entire borough. Human rights solicitors Leigh Day, acting on our behalf, have served papers against the Labour-led council in the High Court ,asking a judge to rule their new busking policy unlawful on the grounds that it is disproportionate, unlawfully wide in its scope and that it breaches article 10 of the Human Rights Act, freedom of expression, which includes music and not just the written and spoken word.
On November 11th 2013 Camden Council narrowly passed a resolution which introduced the most restrictive busking policy in modern UK history across the 22 square kms of this diverse and vibrant metropolitan borough of London. Under this new legal framework, singing and playing music in the streets, even if just done for fun, in any public space in Camden has become a criminal offence unless a person had first successfully applied and paid for a license by demonstrating to a council panel that they are a ‘fit and proper person’ to hold a license. Buskers face fines of up to £1000 for ‘unlicensed’ busking, for breaching the terms and conditions of their license, or even, strangely, for ‘causing another person to busk’. The local authority, the police and even private contractors will have the power under this law to seize the musical instruments and equipment from people by force and to sell them if fines have not been paid after 28 days. These extraordinary powers are not even available to bailiffs who, when collecting debts from people, are forbidden from taking the tools of a person’s trade.
Not content with making potential criminals of all musicians who wish to play on the street, Camden Council have created a complex two-tier busking license scheme which discriminates against you depending on your instrument of choice. If you play acoustic guitar then you pay £19 and wait five working days and you may be granted a ‘standard’ license. However, if you want to play as part of an ensemble, use any wind or percussion instrument, or use any amplification then you are excluded from the ‘standard’ license and required to apply for a ‘special’ license. This costs £47 pounds and takes 20 working days to apply for. Strict terms and conditions will be imposed on the ‘special’ license holder and people who don’t want the busker to hold a license will be able to appeal against the decision to grant a ‘special license’. Any breach of the terms and conditions of the license will itself be a criminal offence. If you wanted to design a scheme that removed all spontaneity, joy and life from the street music scene in Camden, you couldn’t have done better than the policy the council have voted to introduce.
Busking and public space are intertwined. Busking, by its nature is an informal and impromptu performance of art and music in a space that is open to the public. It is a very democratic cultural phenomenon, open to anybody who wants to share their art with passersby. At a time when high streets are under pressure from rapid social change, the rise of internet shopping and out of town shopping developments, buskers create a unique sense of place and community in urban landscapes that are otherwise dominated by the same multinational companies. They are part of a small vanguard against forces of homogenization and dull conformity. Introducing compulsory licenses and charges for busking and harsh criminal penalties for non-compliance takes makes these urban public spaces less accessible to those who need the forum of the streets the most, the young musicians just starting out, the excluded, the vulnerable, the poor and the marginalized. It is a form of urban sanitization, social exclusion and pre-emptive punishment and it serves to deprive public spaces and the people who use them of exposure to art, music and street culture. This is not just a mistaken decision by Camden Council, it is a an act of cultural vandalism.
For many visitors and residents, street music is an integral part of Camden’s cultural identity. Camden Council are happy to draw upon this identity in their when it suits them to do so,
“Camden Town is internationally renowned as one of the most dynamic and unique places in London.
Iconic for its alternative fashions and acclaimed music scene, the markets, shops and entertainment venues draw the crowds in their thousands”1
Despite these words, Camden’s actions speak much louder. In response to complaints about busking from a total of 56 people in a Borough with 220,000 residents, they have introduced some of the most draconian controls against street music of any local authority in the country. They have ignored a petition signed by 6294 people asking them to pull back from their decision, they have ignored the offer of the Musician’s Union, a body representing 30,000 musicians to help them develop a fair and transparent busking policy based on good practice in other cities across the UK, and they have ignored the hundreds of people who have joined us on the streets of Camden to protest this draconian new law alongside comedians Mark Thomas and Bill Bailey and musicians Billy Bragg and Jon Gomm.
Now, we are asking a High Court judge to strike down this damaging law and to ask Camden Council to come up with a different policy, one that works for everybody and protects the diversity and vibrancy of this unique and special part of London. The generous contributions of our supporters have made this legal challenge possible and will help us protect public space nationally as a forum for grassroots culture. To find out ways in which you can help and to make a donation please visit this link:
For regular campaign updates please visit:
Keep Streets Live Campaign website: http://keepstreetslive.com