Don't criminalise buskers, don't make life harder for the homeless and destitute
Labour-led Newcastle City Council are planning to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) across the city centre which could see many §homeless and vulnerable people criminalised and fined up to £1000 for begging and, would make busking after 8pm anywhere in the city a criminal offence. This petition asks them to withdraw the proposal and to find a more inclusive, community-based approach to managing issues without criminalising street culture.
My name is Jonny Walker, I am a 35 year old singer-songwriter, professional busker and self-employed musician. On New Year's Eve as midnight approached I was busking in Leeds and, after a while, was joined by a vulnerably-housed man in a wheelchair often seen begging around the city who asked if he could sing with me. As a busker, I spend a lot of time on the streets and had seen this man many times over the years, but didn't know he was singer, and, as the years had gone by, his health and wellbeing seemed to have worsened a great deal. Over 1,300,000 have now watched the video of his incredible vocal performance of 'Summertime' which was seen as a celebration of street culture and the need to look beyond appearances at the value of every person, but under Newcastle City Council's proposal to ban all busking after 8pm using a we would both have been committing a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1000.
Newcastle City Council's attack on street culture
In 2015 Newcastle City Council published a document entitled 'Vision for Culture' which had the ambition of creating a city buzzing with creative spirit, offering opportunities for everyone to play their part in creating our culture – continuing to make ours one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. This laudable ambition jars with an authoritarian proposal that would make it a criminal offence to play music or sing songs anywhere on the streets of Newcastle after 8pm, despite clear evidence that buskers make the streets safer and less alienating places, especially at night when genuine antisocial behaviour such as physical violence is much more likely.
The leader of Newcastle City Council, Labour's Nick Forbe's website assures us that he is passionate about tackling inequality and prejudice and is determined Newcastle will become a better, fairer place under his leadership yet Newcastle's proposed PSPO, backed by the Labour group, would criminalise some of the most vulnerable people in society by allowing council officers and PCSOs to issue on the spot fines and give them a criminal record for begging, despite the clear evidence that as soon as a beggar is sent to a Magistrates’ court they are setting them further on a path of indebtedness and exclusion with fines that they can't possibly hope to pay. Other proposals in the PSPO aimed at alcohol consumption and substances would disproportionately target the homeless and socially excluded. It is disturbing that a Labour-led administration in the city are targeting the symptoms of addiction such as street drinking and substance misuse through the expanded use of criminal law instead of providing much greater access to support services that give highly vulnerable people a chance to turn their lives around.
A different approach is needed
As Rosie Brighouse, Legal Officer for Human rights group Liberty points out in a response to another PSPO proposal:
“Slapping the most impoverished in society with unaffordable fines does nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty – it simply pushes the vulnerable and destitute into the criminal justice system and a downward spiral of debt"
There IS an alternative...
Liverpool City Council recently abandoned an almost identical proposal to implement a PSPO after a public outcry with Cabinet member Stephen Munby acknowledging the concerns of campaigners by saying the PSPO proposal was 'a bit daft'. Local authorities like Newcastle and Liverpool already have an enormous range of effective powers that can be used to target genuinely antisocial behaviour without creating new criminal offences that will directly target the most vulnerable in society.
I am the founder of The Keep Streets Live Campaign, we advocate for public spaces which are open to informal offerings of art and music and other community uses. We are calling on Newcastle City Council to abandon their PSPO proposal and to work with buskers, the Musician's Union and other groups to create a truly vibrant and inclusive street culture in Newcastle as we have already done in Liverpool, York, Chester, Canterbury, Bath, Birmingham, London and elsewhere.
We have seen public pressure prevent similar measures being adopted in Oxford, Chester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Westminster and Hackney and know that public pressure can stop this from happening in Newcastle too.
Let's make sure that councils like Newcastle and policy makers deal with the causes of homelessness and destitution such as addiction and the lack of affordable housing, rather than making the lives of the most vulnerable even harder.
Whatever the motivation behind the proposed PSPO for the city centre, its effect will be to criminalise vulnerable people and send out a message that street culture is not valued in Newcastle. Criminalising all busking after 8pm will damage the informal cultural life of the city as well as creating an arbitrary and unnecessary criminal offence.
We are calling on Newcastle City Council to honour the spirit of its 2015 'Vision for Culture' aimed at 'creating a city buzzing with creative spirit, offering opportunities for everyone to play their part in creating our culture' by withdrawing the PSPO and working with the busking community and bodies such as Equity, the Keep Streets Live Campaign and the Musician's Union to introduce busking guidance that promotes good relationships. We call on Newcastle City Council and for the police to use their existing powers to target enforcement against individuals who are causing persistent problems, rather than extending the criminal law to create a blanket offence which will affect many vulnerable people.
We are calling on you to abandon your PSPO
Jonathan Walker started this petition with a single signature, and now has 6,224 supporters. Start a petition today to change something you care about.