Who decides if a busker is good enough? And when is a performance criminally bad? As of this year, it’s the council’s tune to call. Chris Pragnell reports that critics are branding the new laws ‘Kafka-esque” – and are even talking of a human rights challenge…
Street performers are at the mercy of bureaucrats who can pass judgment like a “poor man’s Simon Cowell”, campaigners claim. A petition is calling on Canterbury City Council not to use controversial new laws to silence street musicians and even destroy their instruments. New powers adopted this year allow officials to order buskers to move on if their performances are felt to be “detrimental” and “unreasonable”. Failure to cooperate is a criminal offence. Campaigners are outraged by the move and have mockingly likened the authority to the famously critical X Factor judge. They say council officials now have the power to “destroy a musician’s life in an instant” — and are vowing to take their fight to the courts if necessary. The council has repeated its assurances that it welcomes buskers in the city centre and that the new laws will only be used in extreme cases.
But the petition is gaining momentum regardless – prompting one councillor to brand it “unhelpful” and “frankly stupid” on Twitter. The Keep Streets Live Campaign claims the council’s use of community protection notices (CPNs) against buskers will be heavy-handed and open to abuse. Street musicians must now abide by a “code of conduct” which covers not just volume but also length and quality of act. Controversially, officials can decide on the spot whether or not a performer has breached the code. Offenders can be served a CPN banning them from performing— and failure to respond can result in criminal conviction, destruction of instruments and a fine. According to the petition web-site:
“These summary powers are not subject to adequate judicial oversight and turn individual council officers into judge and jury with the power to destroy a musician’s life in an instant. Their code of conduct for busking turns civic officials into a poor man’s Simon Cowell.”
Campaigners claim the council is making use of legislation —the Anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 – which was designed to tackle “severe and sustained anti-social behaviour”. The city’s authorities should celebrate its creative talents not seek to crush them, they add.
“Canterbury is an ancient city with flourishing musical and cultural communities,”
says the website.
“It has a long and proud history of welcoming wayfarers, pilgrims and wandering minstrels.”
The group is sending its petition to council leader John Gilbey, executive member for community safety Andrew Cook and deputy head of neighbourhood services Douglas Rattray. Canterbury council has already put out a response to the petition, which had 1,200 signatories in just two days. In a written statement headed Buskers Welcome on City’s Streets, the authority is at pains to put street musicians’ minds at rest. Cllr Cook says:
“The CPN allows us to deal with the small number of incidents where reasoned discussion is not effective. There is a process to follow where verbal and written warnings are issued first, and issuing of a CPN would only ever be a last resort. The petitioners have chosen to interpret this as an attempt by the council to restrict busking in Canterbury, but this is riot the case. Use of the CPN would never apply to buskers who are reasonable and comply with our code of conduct, as the majority do, and we want to make this clear to everyone who has signed the petition.”
Alex Perkins, Lib Dem councillor for Wincheap ward, went a step further by tweeting that the campaigners were misguided. He said:
“The only thing they [the council] are trying to tackle is persistent use of amplification, which makes life an absolute misery for people who live or work in the city centre. This petition could not be more INaccurate, unhelpful or frankly stupid.”
The petition and the council’s code of conduct can be viewed online. According to Canterbury council’s website, subjects of petitions with 3,000 signatures immediately qualify for discussion at full council. So far the Stop Criminalising Your Buskers, Start Supporting Them campaign on the Change.org petition website has raised close to 2,200 signatures.
Buskers must abide by a code of conduct governing volume, length of performance and even quality of act. For example, they should not perform in one spot for more than an hour, should not be heard beyond 50 metres and should preferably not use amplifiers. Point 12 states:
“Where a performance is deemed to lack the expected standard you will be asked to cease performing.”
The council says it will adopt a “common sense” approach to code enforcement, acting on complaints from members of the public rather than as an arbiter of musical taste. Breaches of the code will see the busker receive a written warning. Should breaches continue, council officials have the power to issue the offenders with a community protection notice, ordering him or her to move on. According to guidance, CPNs must only be issued where the busker’s behaviour has a detrimental effect, is persistent, and is unreasonable. Again, council officials will decide on these issues. Perhaps most crucially, the entire process could take place on the spot. The guidance states:
“Behaviours and actions can flow immediately after each other; there is no need for a minimum time period to elapse, only a reasonable amount.”
“It will be for the issuing officer to decide how long is allowed on a case-by-case basis”.
In theory, therefore, a busker could be told they had breached the code, be served a written warning and be issued with a CPN in one go. Failure to abide by the CPN is a criminal offence and could lead to conviction, destruction of instruments and a low fine – all enforced by court order. Breach of a court order is an imprisonable offence.
‘Demands are unreasonable’
Professional busker Jonny Walker is spearheading the petition against the council’s new laws. He says he is willing to take the fight to the courtroom if necessary. Mr Walker, 34, is director of the national Keep Streets Live movement and busks in Canterbury city centre several times a year. He claims the council’s use of CPNs against buskers is “Kafka-esque” – and could even be a breach of the Human Rights Act.
“This is a case of prioritising administrative convenience over freedom of expression,” he said. “The council says it’s about targeting nuisance buskers, but when you look at the code it’s about cracking down on anyone deemed ‘unreasonable’.”
Mr Walker says a significant concern is the so-called Code of Conduct, which states, among other things, that musicians must perform to an “expected standard”. He said:
“They’re basically laying down a series of unreasonable demands, then saying a person is unreasonable if they don’t meet the demands. It’s Kafka-esque.”
Another concern is that council officials can issue a warning followed by a CPN on the spot.
“It’s at the discretion of the officer how much time is given between warnings,” said Mr Walker. “In theory, if I were to insist on finishing a song, they could warn me, issue the CPN, then have me arrested for breaching the CPN. I know I’m extrapolating a hypothetical situation, but the possibility is there and that’s wrong.”
Mr Walker will lead buskers in a protest against the council’s proposed use of CPNs today (Thurs) and tomorrow, from midday, outside Cafe Rouge in the city centre.
“We want Canterbury City Council to rethink its policy,” he said. “This is far too much power to place into the hands of council officials. The main issue with busking is noise. There’s a huge amount of legislation in place for that. The Environmental Protection Act 1990, for example, has provisions about instruments. The difference is it’s enforced by trained environmental health officers with police.”
Herne Bay Gazette, January 15th 2015