Busking and Public Space in the Busybody State

(A guest post by Jack Lowe) Last month, Havering Council announced their proposals for a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) in Romford town centre. If their plans go ahead, busking with an amplifier, or anywhere apart from locations designated by the council, would be a criminal offence punishable by a £100 Fixed Penalty Notice or a fine of up to £1000 if taken to court.

What might seem like an exceptionally draconian response to performing in public space is an increasingly familiar story in towns and cities across the UK. Not only has busking been regularly included in plans for PSPOs, but two London councils – Camden and Hillingdon – have opted to regulate the activity using licensing. The former, often considered the beating heart of London’s diverse arts scene, requires buskers to pay a non-refundable fee of £19 (acoustic) or £47 (amplified). If approved, a performer can only busk at the times and locations printed on their licence.

Busking has been a feature of our public spaces for centuries, from the minstrels and troubadours of medieval times to today’s digitally-minded contingent. It has seen the birth of countless careers in music and performing arts, providing a consistent yet constantly evolving creative atmosphere in our high streets. With such an established place in our culture and everyday lives, the current clamping down on busking demands the question: what does this trend mean for our public spaces, and for the craft of busking itself?

Public space in the busybody state

It is important to remember that public space has never been ‘free’. There is a tendency in contemporary discussions of the subject to imagine a time in the past when people could do anything they wanted in public space.

Yet this perspective ignores a past in which public space has been the setting for a wide range of social exclusions, alongside more formal regulatory measures based in law and authority. For example, public spaces have consistently been less accessible (let alone usable) for women, ethnic minorities, the young, gay people, and other marginalised groups throughout the ages. The ancient Greek agora – often upheld as an icon of free political debate and social mixing – was a space largely out of bounds for slaves, women and travellers. Time and again, freedoms for one group in public space have meant restrictions for another.

Even formal busking regulations have a long history. In the Middle Ages, Guilds of Minstrels were established to both protect and regulate their members. In Canterbury, it was ordained in 1526 that all minstrels be part of the city guild, whose rules restricted the playing of instruments on Sundays during mass or evensong, in taverns/inns unless hired, or in houses unless the instrument was being tuned. Later, in the Victorian period, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 prohibited the use of ‘noisy’ instruments within the Metropolitan Police District ‘for the purpose of calling persons together, or of announcing any show or entertainment, or for the purpose of hawking, selling, distributing, or collecting any article whatsoever, or of obtaining money or alms.’

So it is important not to be overly pessimistic about the supposed decline or ‘end’ of public space, because public space has never attained the standards of ‘freedom’ that are often associated with it.

What is different today, however, is the style of regulation. There is now a whole network of officious mechanisms and actors that define the boundaries of acceptable conduct in public space, including forms, licences, codes of conduct, environmental health officers, private security guards, public liability insurance, health and safety guidelines, and more. Though each serves a slightly different purpose, they are mutually reinforcing. The terms of licences for public activities may be based on the latest health and safety guidance. Forms must be filled in to ensure compliance with codes of conduct, and the possession of public liability insurance. Together, these devices provide a ‘toolkit’ authorities can draw from to micromanage even the most mundane public activities.

The issue with this new form of officious regulation is that it tends to categorise which behaviours are acceptable or unacceptable in public space according to very arbitrary distinctions, which are then enshrined in law and policy to become the official standards. Licences and PSPOs dictate the exact times, locations and even which types of instruments or performances are suitable in public spaces. Context becomes irrelevant, as the appropriateness of activities is specified by a series of absolutes. Busking with an amplifier becomes unacceptable by definition, regardless of how quiet the instrument is, or how loud the ambient noise in an area. Rules are enforced by officers and security guards because they are rules, not because they make sense in a given situation. Indeed, it becomes harder to justify your activity when you are arguing against a formal procedure rather than a person’s judgement.

The result is that you can no longer assume that what you’re doing is allowed until you’re told otherwise. Rather, it is a person’s responsibility to ensure that they fulfil the official requirements for their activity beforehand for it to be deemed acceptable. So although public space is not necessarily less ‘public’ today, it is evident that our relationship with it is, in many places, becoming more formalised and less open to spontaneity.

Busking culture

If regulations are leaving less and less room for the spontaneous and unpredictable, it is perhaps unsurprising that busking is now a common target of officialdom. Busking is now so synonymous with non-conformity that the verb ‘to busk’ has taken on the alternative meaning ‘to improvise’. In their history of street entertainment, Cohen and Greenwood explain that ‘the essence of street music is not in its technical perfection or tonal quality, so much as its spontaneity and freedom’.

The busker is important, not merely because he brings us music on our way to work, but also because he represents the unpredictability and freedom that have been lost in most people’s regimented lives. The footloose musician has always been around and his different perspective on life can give a fresh point of view to that coming from masses of people all trained to think the same way. (Cohen and Greenwood, The Buskers: A History of Street Entertainment)

In the world of local government bureaucracy and law enforcement, though, it’s often hard to convince those responsible for maintaining safe and functional public spaces that spontaneous art has any inherent value. Any use of public space that is not for the purpose of unobstructed movement, particularly between commercial properties, is seen as disorderly or even threatening. In fact, the Metropolitan Police have made the claim multiple times – without evidence – that busking encourages crimes such as pickpocketing. Following Wilson and Kelling’s influential ‘broken windows’ thesis, this judgement probably reflects the perception that signs of disorder in a neighbourhood can create the conditions for crime and other social problems.

Nonetheless, buskers can point towards other benefits of their craft that demonstrate its wider social value. One particularly evocative term that has been used to describe buskers is ‘civic lighthouses’, encapsulating the idea that buskers provide safety and reassurance on our streets, as well as being cultural landmarks in themselves. Not only can buskers act as eyes on the street to deter or witness wrongdoing, but also friendly sources of local information and confidants for people in need. Due to their shared presence on streets, buskers tend to forge a close and mutually supportive relationship with homeless communities, for example.

Those with purely commercial interests also have plenty to thank buskers for. By creating a vibrant atmosphere in urban centres, buskers can encourage higher footfall from which local businesses can benefit. Stories abound of buskers being offered free food and drink, money, and gigs based on their performances by establishments such as restaurants and pubs – an indication of the value that these businesses attribute to buskers. Additionally, the money earnt by buskers will often be invested back into the local economy when it is spent.

Perhaps the most meaningful impact of busking, however, is how it cultivates awareness of the different kinds of people and lifestyles that exist in our communities. Through their performances, buskers bare part of their soul; sharing a piece of their identity for others to freely access. Different voices, different styles of music, different appearances, different acts. Many will be familiar with the cheerful sight of a child utterly transfixed by a street performance, as if they’re under some magical enchantment. Busking for many people is the closest they get to experiencing live music and spectacle, particularly from diverse genres.

It is precisely this interaction with difference – and the social, cultural, and economic benefits these relationships create – that risks being stifled through the officious regulation of busking and public space more broadly.

What kind of public space do we want?

Fortunately, there are numerous organisations committed to making the case against the hyper-regulation of busking and street culture. Among the most prominent is Keep Streets Live, led by professional busker Jonny Walker, which advocates freedom of expression in public spaces by engaging with local authorities, creating petitions, responding to PSPO and licensing consultations, encouraging support for busking using social and traditional media, and organising protests. Larger organisations including The Musicians’ Union, Liberty, Equity and The Busking Project have all stood alongside Keep Streets Live in their various campaigns, while smaller groups such as Buskers Unregulated have used social media to encourage the recording and sharing of interactions between buskers and officials, providing legal advice to performers who need it.

And in many cases, it’s working. After a long campaign by Keep Streets Live in 2012, Liverpool City Council backed down over their proposals to introduce £20 permits and compulsory public liability insurance costing £100 for buskers in the city. Now, Liverpool is a model location for unregulated busking, having worked with Keep Streets Live, the Musicians’ Union and the local Business Improvement District (BID) to produce ‘A Guide to Busking in Liverpool’. Informative rather than authoritative, this guidance outlines a simple approach to managing any issues arising from busking, encouraging amicable conversation rather than regulation. It is only when buskers consistently refuse to engage with affected parties and fellow buskers that intervention will be considered as a last resort, using the existing Public Order Act 1986 and Environmental Protection Act 1990 legislation.

Apart from resolving issues, the guidance also offers useful advice for buskers on choosing where to perform, and how to be considerate in their performances. While for residents, businesses, and local authorities, the document explains clearly what busking is and why it is considered a valuable activity.

Recognising the positives of this approach, other councils have followed Liverpool’s lead. Now York, Chester, Birmingham and Canterbury have adopted the same guidance, all after having originally planned to introduce stringent regulations for buskers.
The lesson is that councils are often willing to see the values of unregulated busking, but to be successful it needs methods that attempt to bring together all stakeholders to discuss what we want from our public spaces.

Understandably, co-operation can be difficult for some buskers. Many will have painful experiences of authority figures such as council officers and PCSOs, and many more will simply want to get on with their art rather than attend meetings. Equally, residents and businesses may struggle to sympathise with buskers if they have suffered at the hands of an inconsiderate minority. But being antagonistic towards other stakeholders will only make them more likely to resort to the impersonal system of legal and officious channels – a system that leaves little room for negotiation and compromise.

That’s why the issue of busking regulation is not just about the loss of vibrant street culture, or the supposed ‘end’ of public space, but about what kind of public space we want to have. Do we want public spaces where every single interaction must go through official channels to be deemed acceptable? Do we want public spaces where every conflict of interest is resolved by complaining to council officers or the police, or taking legal action? Or do we want public spaces that are open to difference and free communication; that welcome diverse and creative users because everyone understands the positives that these activities can bring, rather than assuming they are inappropriate until informed otherwise?

It is here, in the decisions that determine the future of our public spaces, that we can all learn a little from the openness and conviviality of the busking art form.

Jack Lowe is a cultural geographer.