A coalition of industry leaders and street performers, supported by award winning comedian, writer, actor and former street performer Eddie Izzard, joined forces this weekend to protest against Westminster City Council and their proposed new busking and street entertaining restrictions as part of the ‘Save London Buskers’ campaign.
The council announced earlier this year that they would investigate a new licensing scheme for street performing, claiming to have received a rise in complaints around noise and overcrowding. If approved, the Busking and Street Entertainment Policy would make it illegal to busk on over a thousand streets in the borough which will leave performers competing for twenty five pitches in an area measuring twenty one million square meters, so cutting the number of current pitches down from hundreds.
Performers would have to apply for a Busking Licence*, a Street Trading License (if they want to sell their original music), have two million pounds worth of Public Liability Insurance and they would not be able to work with many theatrical props. The new legislation will also require a twenty minute break between each forty minute performance, effectively reducing the number of performances by one third. They will face arrest, fines and having their equipment seized if they do not comply.
As well as taking part in yesterday’s protest, The Musicians’ Union, Equity, Keep Streets Live, The Busking Project, The Magic Circle, the Covent Garden Street Performers’ Association and the Westminster Street Performers’ Association co-signed a statement earlier this month that details how the council already has existing powers to deal with street performers, and that current, proven, alternative systems could work better for residents, businesses and street performers.
These organisations also feel that – despite reassurances from Westminster City Council that they would be involved in any discussions around these potential new laws – they have largely been ignored, leaving them frustrated for the following reasons:
1. Incorrect logging of complaints against buskers/street performers
Mathew Boden, who is a Westminster Street Performer Association (WSPA) representative and street art living history archivist said “We asked the Council repeatedly to send us the complaints so we could analyse them and they refused so we were forced to put in a Freedom of Information request. This data showed that Westminster receives on average five complaints a day and one fifth of those complaints are people performing between 9pm and 8am, which can be easily dealt with using existing laws.
Many of the nearly four thousand complaints appear not to be about busking at all – some are complaints about rickshaws – or are unverified and have little or no detail as to the nature of the issue. In many, the mere presence of a busker was recorded. A lot of the remaining complaints appear to be clearly breaking the law and easily remedied with current legislation.
The Council claim a rise in complaints but have yet to back that claim up with the data.”
2. Existing laws/services not being used
Mathew Boden, who is a Westminster Street Performer Association (WSPA) representative and street art living history archivist said “We have been told by the Council that there has been a rise in late night noise complaints. However, they have refused to use existing legislations that remedy noise problems – the Control of Pollution act from 1974 and Statutory Nuisance Act from 1993 both state that amplified noise after 9pm is already illegal – along with offers to work with them on taking action on anyone who does not follow it on a consistent basis.
For example, when the Greater London Authority (GLA) set up Busk in London and partnered with Westminster Council with the support of the performing community, the council backed out from using existing laws against just five problem buskers/groups that were identified by the scheme and Westminster noise control.
The WSPA also offers a service where they will deal with any complaints on the spot, to regulate the minority of performers who don’t comply with the rules, and to save the Council time and money. This service has been ignored. If only they would act on these laws they already have, there would be no need to create new ones.
It’s worth noting that noise complaints have actually increased in Camden since their license was imposed, which proves that this may not be the solution to any problems which may occur”
3. Unwillingness from the Council to enter a meaningful and thorough consultation
Jim Woodcock from the Covent Garden Street Performers Association (CGSPA) said, “Westminster Council do not value or understand street art. They have previously tried to remove busking from the West End with schemes such as Operation Spotlight, where street artists were placed in the same category as homeless beggars.
Westminster reps in February initially said they felt our current system of self-governance was a success and they wanted to emulate this across London. We would have been very happy to work with them. However, they then decided in July to include Covent Garden within the list of restricted areas, but didn’t tell us this until September, providing no explanation as to why they had changed their minds.
All groups representing the various street arts that will be affected by this legislation have raised their concerns about its impact on the performers. At a recent Q&A the council admitted that they have done no research into what the effects will be and how they could support. Nevertheless, they are determined to push it through
The only reasonable and responsible solution is for Westminster Council to finally deal with the small amount of problem buskers with the support and guidance of the historic performing community, who have been reaching out to them for many years”
4. Inconsiderate timing
Nick Broad from The Busking Project said, “The most mystifying part is that Westminster Council has chosen to limit noise and overcrowding during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. If they would only pop their heads outside for a moment, they’d see that these restrictions are extraordinarily pointless right now.”
The Coronavirus Pandemic has already devastated London’s street performing community, who have no access to the furlough or job retention schemes and have been largely unable to perform. And yet, it’s arguable that street performing has never been more important for the city’s art-starved residents. Though socially-distanced crowds are starting to return, these new laws will further impact an already struggling community that has become a fixture of London’s cultural landscape.
It isn’t just London’s busking and street performing scene under threat. The organisations and street performers’ associations who have signed this statement are also concerned about the knock-on effect that this licensing scheme would have across the rest of the UK and potentially the world, as more countries are starting to introduce busking regulations and restrictions.
A period of consultation between Westminster City Council, residents, local businesses, performers and their unions has been ongoing since January. There are two final Q&A calls with the Council on 20th and 22nd October with a verdict expected in November.