Don't ban your buskers, don't criminalise the destitute
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When a video of 15 year old Alfie Sheard busking went viral in February 2017 it took him from the streets of Doncaster to the studios of Burbank, California where he was invited to play in front of millions of viewers on the Ellen Degeneres show and presented with a guitar by his hero Ed Sheeran. Under controversial new proposals, now under consultation, from Havering Borough Council to ban all busking with any amplification in Romford and to restrict it to designated spots using a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), Alfie would have been committing a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1000. These draconian proposals, if implemented, would turn Romford town centre into a no-go area for busking and would do immense damage to the grassroots cultural life of the town at a time when opportunities for young artists to perform and audiences to encounter live music are being greatly diminished by the closure of live venues.
Many contemporary street musicians and artists use some amplification to support outdoor musical performances. Some use quiet instruments or music technology which can't work effectively without amplification. These include keyboards, electric violins, mandolins, guitars as well as loop pedals which are an increasingly common part of contemporary musical performances. Instead of criminalising all amplification in catch-all proposals, the local authority should target enforcement action against those performers who have caused a persistent issue with noise nuisance, whether amplified or unamplified, using their existing statutory powers such as the power to issue noise abatement notices and confiscate musical instruments under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. A blanket ban on all amplification in Romford would also potentially criminalise residents who used a loudspeaker or microphone during a peaceful protest thereby infringing their rights under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Romford's draft Public Space Protection Order would also criminalise 'begging and the seeking of alms' in proposals that have come under strong criticism in a letter sent to Havering Borough Council from leading Human Rights advocacy group Liberty because of the impact these new powers will have against the most vulnerable and destitute people in Romford. Anyone caught begging or seeking 'alms' (A term which is left undefined in the draft proposals) could face an on-the-spot fine of £100 rising to £1000 if unpaid. At a time when homelessness and destitution is rising across the UK, these new powers will do immense damage to the most vulnerable members of society as well as representing a waste of public money as the fines will not be able to be paid and the cost of processing people through the courts does not represent good use of scarce public resources. The police and council already have a wide range of existing powers that can be used to target aggressive begging or busking that causes a genuine nuisance. The new powers will criminalise people who are doing no harm.
My name is Jonny Walker and I am the founding director of the Keep Streets Live Campaign, a not-for-profit organisation that campaigns for public spaces which are open to informal offerings of art and music and other community uses. We have campaigned against the use of PSPOS to criminalise busking and homelessness across the UK and have also advised the mayoral Busk in London taskforce on how to make the Greater London area more busker friendly. In Oxford and Chester the local authorities made significant changes to PSPO proposals to avoid criminalising the homeless and the most vulnerable whilst in Birmingham, one of the biggest local authorities in the UK, proposals to criminalise all busking with amplifiers using a PSPO was replaced by new busking guidance jointly agreed between the local authority, business and residents groups, the Keep Streets Live Campaign, Musician's Union and Equity. This collaborative new approach, also adopted by Liverpool, York, Chester, Canterbury and other cities targets enforcement action against the small minority of buskers who cause persistent nuisance, whilst encouraging street artists and musicians to make the public spaces in those towns and cities welcoming and vibrant places.
I know from personal experience that Romford is not always a welcoming place for buskers because I was nearly arrested there in December 2015, before I had even played a note, because a police officer wrongly believed that busking constituted antisocial behaviour. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the highly sociable role that busking plays in our town centres by bringing people together and creating a vibrant and welcoming public spaces. The use of a so-called Public Space Protection Order to criminalise a sociable and beneficial community activity is entirely misplaced. The Keep Streets Live Campaign now publicly calls on Havering Borough Council to remove their plans to criminalise busking with a PSPO and to instead work alongside the Keep Streets Live Campaign, Musician's Union and Equity to bring in new busking guidance allowing swift enforcement to be taken against buskers who cause a real nuisance whilst street art and music to flourish. We also ask that the council remove the clause on 'begging and seeking alms' and to concentrate scarce resources at a time of rising homelessness and desitution on protecting the most vulnerable instead of prosecuting them and to use existing powers to target only those whose behaviour genuine causes alarm, harassment and distress to others.
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