Camden Council’s war on buskers

The Campaign group Keep Streets Live is challenging Camden Council’s draconian new busking law in the High Court.

The new law is extraordinarily severe, anathema to this vibrant and chilled part of London with a lively street music scene.

Not only will buskers have to apply in advance and pay for a licence, there are also strict rules and conditions for busking which will make the activity all but impossible.

The very notion of a licence undermines the nature of busking which is – in the words of Keep Streets Live director Jonny Walker – ‘an informal and impromptu form of entertainment’. Buskers move from place to place, playing in up to 40 different cities in a year, and pitches ‘are often fluid and change with the dynamic of the street and the time of day’.

Camden Council has also set precise rules the kinds of licensed busking which will be permitted. There are rules on where buskers may stand (50m away from each other, and leaving 1.8m clearance on the pavement). The council has pretty much banned amplification, even though this is necessary to make many instruments and singing voices audible over background noise. The council has also limited the use of drums and wind or brass instruments, including flutes and recorders, which are too noisy, apparently; entire sections of the musical repertoire are barred at a stroke.

Council wardens will be granted with draconian powers to crack down on unlicensed strummers and singers. Unlicensed buskers could be fined £1000, and council wardens have powers to confiscate instruments in lieu of this fine. Even licensed buskers can be issued with directions to move on or stop playing by council officers.

The council appears to view busking solely as a nuisance and troublesome activity. Indeed, it claims that busking can cause ‘a risk to safety of people using the street, and that increased opportunities have been created for crime to occur, such as pickpocketing’. So banjos are the cause of pickpocketing.

What this law represents is not a real problem in Camden: there are very few public complaints about buskers in the area. Instead, the busking law represents the growing view in councils that all unregulated social life is problematic, messy and latently criminal. Anything informal and spontaneous – whether busking, leafleting, or impromptu games in the park – is increasingly being subject to formal licences and procedures. Public space starts to become official space: you need a licence before you can act.

Keep Streets Live suggests the use of informal codes of busking etiquette, to deal with the disputes that can sometimes arise between the different users of public space. No busker wants to annoy people – after all, it’s bad for business.

Busking can be good or bad, depending on the busker and your taste, but it is inextricably part of public urban life, part of the vibe of the place. Somebody pitching up with their instrument, picking a tune – it’s one of the few ways now that the experience of public space can be unscripted and unexpected, made by a citizen rather than designed by councils or corporates.

In short, busking is one of the few things people still do in public space; it’s one of the few ways that public space is still public. What happens in Camden is therefore important for the rest of the country.

Keep Streets Live managed to turn around attempts to control busking in York and Liverpool. The organisation is running a funding drive to fund the costs of their High Court challenge to the Camden law. Do throw a penny in their hat.

UPDATE: The High Court has rejected the case, ruling that Camden council’s law is ‘necessary and proportionate’. The campaign is now planning to take to the Court of Appeal.

!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+’://’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);