Latest News From The Streets

If you haven’t kept up to date with Jonny’s ongoing mission to keep public spaces alive with art and music, then here’s a little snippet as to the latest protests against Camden Council, London that sees Jonny team up with stand-up comedians Mark Thomas and Ben Van Der Velde. Visit http://keepstreetslive.com for more information. As written by Jonny on the hop between a festival in Belgium and the debut demonstration in London:

The Orchestra….

I am writing these words a few hours before the inaugural public performance of the Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra (CKO) on Camden High Street and a tangible feeling of Kazoo-infused excitement is rising up within me. The CKO has been formed at great haste because of Camden Council’s plans to impose a draconian license scheme for busking in shared public spaces of this great London Borough, which will give the police and council officials extraordinary powers to seize busker’s instruments, to impose fines of up to £1000 and to sell instruments if the fine is unpaid after 28 days. The central ideas of the CKO is that everybody can play the Kazoo, so it’s democratic, and everybody is welcome to join, so it is inclusive. Most importantly, if the police or council decided to try and seize an illegal Kazoo, they would,

a) Look very silly indeed

b) Be unable to stem the tide of replacement Kazoos filling the breach. At 5o-pence-a-pop they are the citizen’s choice to blow a fulsome raspberry at badly misconceived local government policies.

The Politics…

Camden is a Labour-led Council. A party that at a national level is presenting itself as ‘One Nation Labour’, giving a voice to the voiceless, standing alongside the dispossessed and the vulnerable and against powerful special interests that restrict freedoms and erode communities, especially the evil Tories who are privatising everything that moves. Local authority budgets have been some of the hardest hit by the austerity agenda of the Coalition Government. This year alone Camden Council are having to find ‘savings’ to the order of an incredible £83.3 million pounds from their already over-stretched budgets. These cuts will inevitably fall most heavily on those with the greatest needs: the old, the disabled, the sick, the unemployed and others who are marginalised. In this light, it is simply staggering that Labour-controlled Camden have mobilised thousands of pounds of public money in order to carry out a public consultation with a view to implementing one of the UK’s most restrictive busking policies, effectively privatising huge swathes of public space for those who wish for nothing more than the right to play music on the streets. Camden Council have attempted to cloak their decision making in a veneer of reasonableness by saying they are protecting residents who have complained about the noise that street musicians make, particularly around the tube station at the top of the high street. Apart from the fact that Camden is known for being one of the busiest and most vibrant places in London, these complaints – around 100 in total

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over the last 12 months in the whole of Camden – represent an insignificant fraction of the overall complaints received by the Noise Team in the whole borough, and yet the licence scheme is all-encompasing affecting every street and public space in the Borough of Camden. Research from the Live Music Forum indicates that over 90% of complaints about relate to noise from private residences and venues, not from buskers. In addition, the noise from the millions of tonnes of metal-entombed mobile internal combustion engines that roar down the street every day also comes with CO2 emissions for good measure. If the Council were really serious about controlling noise and environomental pollution they would mobilisise resources against persistent noise offending venues and private residences, and consider pedestrianisng the high street for the benefit of residents and visitors alike. Instead, the Council have decided to focus their limited resources upon a a small group of individuals who are easy to scapegoat and easier still to overlook, namely, buskers!

 

Public and Private

By requiring would-be buskers to fork out between £30 and £123 for a license, by banning all wind and percussion instruments and amplifiers REGARDLESS of the volume they are played at or the aptitude that they are played with, Camden Council are removing any potential for spontaneity and creativity and giving the police and council officials the power to destroy the livelihoods of individuals whose only crime is trying to make an honest living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. No one is saying that buskers don’t create noise issues from time to time, but the police and council ALREADY have extensive powers to move buskers on IF they are creating a genuine nuisance. The Environmental Protection Act 1990, The Highways Act 1980 and the Public Order Act all give the police powers if they need to use them. What these laws DON’T permit is the confiscation of instruments and the arbitrary imposition of £1000 fines with the threat of selling instruments if the fines are unpaid. Even bailiffs are not permitted to confiscate the tools of a person’s trade when collecting debts for the very good reason that this will prevent them from being able to earn in the future. The powers that Camden Council are proposing to give themselves are wide open to abuse and are an affront to any reasonable sense of proportion and balance. The plans are also an assault on the rights of people to use public space for informal performances of music, and as such, represent a further erosion of communal forms of life and cultural freedoms.

 

The Reasons Why

Camden Council claim that this is a consultation and that the outcome is not pre-judged. However, a revealing article published in Camden New Journal back in April tells a different story. Deputy Mayor and Labour Councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli, went on a ‘walkabout’ along with other local politicians and council officers and a concerned resident.

He said: “We had to see the problems for ourselves.

“In the short-term we will be reinforcing existing laws, for example when a busker obstructs passage we can legally move them.

“In the long-term we are changing policies and opting for a strict new one, meaning very specific powers to deal with busking. It will involve designated areas for them, and will not allow amps or more than one person at a time. So instead of bands we’ll see the return of traditional busking musicians.”

We know exactly what those ‘very specific powers’ are now, and they are an insult to freedom and to fairness. Many street performers use battery-powered amplifiers to support their performances. For anyone playing a classical or electric guitar they are an essential piece of equipment enabling music to be heard above the noise of traffic. Amplifiers can always be turned down if there are complaints, but to ban them entirely, along with percussion and wind instruments will have the effect of destroying livelihoods; whilst doing little to alter the fact that Camden is a noisy place. People flock to Camden from all over the world precisely because it is known as a cultural and musical epicentre with a vibrant night-life. In an all-out assault on buskers, Camden Council are demonstrating a tin ear for what really makes the place tick.

Later in the same article and in a clear sign that the wrongheadedness in Camden Council crosses party lines, Lib Dem councillor Chris Naylor cryptically alludes to development plans that might well alter the unique character of Camden for good…

He said: “There were plans to build a huge shiny shopping centre all the way from HSBC bank to Buck Street which would have knocked down the church and Camden Market.

“Now, we don’t want to do that in as big a way, but a smaller scale version is being talked about. That would mean this whole area would be changing anyway, and within that we could discuss options.”

Banning buskers whilst making plans to build a new shopping centres in the ruins of an iconic Market which is synonymous with Camden against a backdrop of savage local authority cuts? It’s a deeply depressing story which is why it is so important that the plans to regulate street music out of existence must be opposed in a spirit of creative and loving resistance. That’s where the Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra and the 2600 and counting people who have signed our petition calling on Camden to think again come in and why we won’t go away until these wrongheaded plans are abandoned!

 

Sign the petition here.

Join the Facebook Group

Join the Association of Street Artists and Performers

 

 

The Powers That Be?

A typical damp Wednesday busking in York. That’s me, Jonny Walker, looking a bit upset on the left. On the right, partially obscured, are no less than SIX public servants from the council and the police who are taking time out of their afternoon to deal with that social menace otherwise known as busking.York Council charge street performers £40 per day if they want to sell CDs of their music to the public. That is a lot of money when you are already performing for free in rain or shine. So I have written a sign that says ‘cd available, suggested contribution £7, these CDs are not being offered for sale, contributions are voluntary and at your discretion’. The lady in the black jacket told me to take the sign down and the CDs out or I would lose my busking permit. I have had a permit for nine years, but that doesn’t seem to count for anything.
I politely refused at which point she called the licensing department who accused me of street trading. I said that the CDs were not for sale, they are an extension of my busking act, any contribution is voluntary. At this point the man said, ‘Take away his busking permit’.

I was told to turn off my microphone or that the police would be called. I said

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that I was doing nothing unlawful and was not prepared to stop playing. At this point the police were called.

There I was with two council officials, two licensing officials and two police officers. I don’t know whether they enjoyed my version of Hallelujah, but the Licensing Enforcement officer gave me a caution, read me my rights, took a photo of my sign and took two copies of my cd. The lady from the council walked away and told me she would be speaking to her boss to see whether I would have my permit revoked for the insubordination.

I was left in peace to carry on singing…but for how long?

The Association of Street Artists and Performers has been set up because accross the country local authorities are getting heavy handed with people who want nothing more then to perform their art on the streets. Public space belongs to all of us, and the High Streets, under pressure from Internet shopping, out of town developments, high rents and the dire economic situation need to be full of life and music to keep people’s spirits up. Street performance gives a place a sense of community and well-being, and is one of the many reasons people still have for actually physically going to a place.

So instead of sending 6 public servants to try to intimidate a street musician, why doesn’t the local authority work with the street artists and performers to build a sense of community, and public places that everybody can feel part of. The campaign to Keep Streets Live is only just beginning! Whether you are a street performer yourself, would like to be, or just value art at street culture level, join us on this journey….

Please feel free to share this with other people. The time has come for the streets to be acknowledged as the vitally important spaces that they are, both for music, the arts and for a greater sense of community…

Join the commentary on my Facebook page

Keep Streets Live and Media Coverage

This is an extract from a letter I have written to media contacts:

BBC Northwest ran a story on our event, but I have to say that the coverage was slightly mis-leading and misrepresented our grievances. Anybody watching the report on Monday 9th would have been forgiven for thinking it was a bunch of buskers moaning about paying a £20 registration fee for a council permit. BID CEO Ged Gibbons talked about the policy about giving ‘everybody a chance’ whilst in the same breath reducing the number of performing pitches on Church Street and Lord Street from around eight spots to one. Coercive letters threatening buskers with trespass prosecution were not mentioned. The only clip used of my many interviews was the one time I acknowledged that busking can cause issues for councils.

There is a wider, on-going story here, much bigger then the one that has so far been reported on in the BBC or the Liverpool Echo. It is about restrictions on the use of public spaces for spontaneous gatherings of community and civil society. It is about the Council using legally dubious threats of trespass against performers and musicians to frighten them into signing up to a coercive and restrictive scheme. It is about a body with limited accountability that advances a narrow, but powerful section of interest, in this case the Business Improvement District, attempting to advance a policy that affects the whole city of Liverpool without consultation. It is about a Councillor, in this case, Stephen Munby, Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods, a man who talks about getting youth workers for our children who have no places to go and nothing

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to do (New policy stipulation no under 18 performers) rubber stamping and giving legitimacy to a piece of sloppy and badly thought through policy without proper accountability and daring to dress it up as something that BENEFITS performers. They thought they could do it by the back door because street artists and street performers are soft and easy targets for a council that has many serious problems to deal with like, a housing crisis, runaway youth unemployment, rising homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse to name a few. Well, they were wrong.

Today is Saturday 14th July. There are crowds of people playing music in the streets of Liverpool without a licence today with the support of the team at http://KeepStreetsLive.com/. The atmosphere is celebratory, but the message is deadly serious, and it is not a petty grievance about a £20 fee. Our online petition has reached over 2500 signatures. We have collected an additional 2000 in paper form. This is an important movement. Our streets belong to the wider community. Narrow interests cannot be allowed to dictate to an entire city what kind of street culture it has. Music and culture are the lifeblood of this city, and the council’s policy sets a terrible precedent and sends a damaging message to the world. But we have stood up and said, ‘No!’. An enormous debate has begun. I would like to know if the media are interested in running a story that brings out the deeper issues here?

Please find attached a copy of the press release I prepared yesterday for the team at Change.Org where our orignal petition is still live and gaining signatures by the hour: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/keep-spontaneous-street-performance-alive

Love,

Jonny Walker