When you tell people that you busk for a living, you can usually count on receiving three questions in response: "How much money do you make?", "What's the most popular song?" and "Do you need a licence for that?"
Until recently, the answers to these questions were, "None of your business", "Fields of Athenry" and "No". The answers to the first and second questions remain the same, but there are now more and more authorities in London considering the banning of unlicensed busking. Two have already succeeded (Camden and Hillingdon) while another, Westminster, is currently holding a consultation about their proposals.
The consultation itself has been poorly and dishonestly managed. The council initially promised to discuss the wording of the questions posed before later going back on that promise. As a co-director of Keep Streets Live, a group that campaigns for the protection of public spaces, we have seen all too often that consultations are frequently manipulated to justify the council's ambitions. Westminster seems to be no exception.
The dozens of street entertainers who make their living from busking in Westminster are clear: the proposals that have been put forward would mean the end of their livelihood. Some have migrated from Kensington, which recently introduced its own authoritarian rules, meaning that it is now a criminal offence to busk outside the museums or Harrods — punishable by a fine of up to £1,000. Together, they have formed a Street Performers' Association, offering to work with the council to educate buskers who are causing problems and deter those who refuse to modify their performance as a result. At the very least, they should be given a chance to show that this is a better route to go down than the sledgehammer of new legislation.
We have argued that existing laws are sufficient for dealing with genuinely anti-social busking; there are already laws in place regarding noise nuisance and obstruction. Yet Westminster council has told us it is unable to use these laws 'because it requires evidence'. Well… yes. That’s rather the point isn't it?
I've busked all over Europe, including every country in the EU, and I can say with absolute confidence that any form of licensing is the death knell for busking in that city. What's more, it doesn't make any difference to the number of complaints. In fact, in Camden, perhaps encouraged by the council's anti-busking stance, complaints from local businesses actually increased after the introduction of licensing. It also costs money — around £12,000-£14,000 per year in administrative costs. And that's not even taking into account the added burden on the police.
If Westminster becomes the latest council to introduce these stringent regulations, other councils across London and the rest of the UK will be emboldened. It will mean the end of the road for those of us who busk for a living. Perhaps we will still see buskers on our streets — anyone willing to pay their licence fee and organise a time and a place with the council before playing their 45 minutes will probably still be able to do so. But that's not enough to earn a living. And it is not in the spirit of busking, which has for centuries been a spontaneous act. What we are seeing is further evidence of the stifling of freedom in public spaces; the commercialisation and Starbuckification of our high streets. Busking will become a poor person's X Factor — free entertainment sanctioned by the council for people desperate to 'go viral' — rather than simply earn a decent crust.
Unless we speak out against what is happening to the busking profession, we face a bleak and uncertain future.
Read an opposing view: "We Must Strike The Balance Between Allowing Busking And Plaguing People With Noise"