During the pandemic, the number of people likely to throw some coins into a busker's case is smaller than ever. One busker told VICE World News that since March he has been able to perform for three weeks in total. With people unable to perform to crowds and strict restrictions on even going outside, it is already hard enough for buskers and street performers.
But Westminster City Council – the local authority that administers the central London borough – and the wealthy businesses lobbying on the issue, want to make it even harder. When people eventually return to the streets of central London following the pandemic, they may find that buskers have all but disappeared.
Last month, the council voted to introduce a compulsory licensing system for buskers. When it comes into effect on the 5th of April 2021, it will be the strictest series of measures in any part of the UK, effectively making busking illegal on around 1,000 London streets.
Currently, if you want to busk in London, you can do so anywhere that is public property (with the exception of Camden and Uxbridge city centre, which require a licence). Westminster City Council is set to change this. In order to busk in an area that includes what used to be the busiest parts of the capital – Covent Garden, Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square – you will need to pay £20 every six months for a licence.
As well as requiring that all street performers pay £40 annually to busk, the council is pushing through a range of other bizarre, restrictive measures. These include the obligation to purchase Public Liability Insurance for up to £2 million; the requirement that the performance isn't audible to people in “nearby premises”; the banning of fire and sharp objects; and the stipulation that buskers perform for 40 minutes, leaving a 20-minute gap before the next performance. Westminster is also limiting the number of valid busking pitches to just 20 non-amplified and six amplified spots.
David Fisher is a busker who sings and plays the guitar and harmonica. Like many street performers, he fears that Westminster will set a precedent. He performs in around 50 locations around the country. “If I were to have to get a licence for every single one of those, it would be, quite aside from a bureaucratic nightmare, also very expensive. It's completely unviable.”
Two of the proposed amplified pitches are, according to buskers, totally inadequate. One is in Marble Arch, which buskers say does not attract enough people; the other is by the statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square, stranded on a traffic island between some of the busiest roads in the city. “What are they trying to do, kill people?” says Nick Broad, who runs the Busking Project, a non-profit organisation that advocates on behalf of buskers worldwide. The council did not respond when questioned on this.
A consultation held between September and November 2020 found that 70 percent of the 893 respondents disagreed with the proposals, with 94 percent of those people feeling the restrictions were too harsh.
The council says that it receives around 2,200 complaints every year “about noise and crowding caused by street performances in Westminster”. But an FOI carried out by performers suggested that not all of the complaints were about street performances: at least 27 of 3,990 complaints in 2018 and 2019 were about rickshaw drivers; 39 were about religious preachers; at least 56 refer to a man shouting through a traffic cone; at least 32 are about beggars; one was about a councillor who was harassing a busker.
Broad and the street performers VICE World News spoke to say that most of the complaints are the fault of a tiny minority, and point to existing powers that could be used to deal with problems.
595 of the 2,200 complaints, for instance, were about amplified busking after 9PM, which could be dealt with under pre-existing UK laws (section 62 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, for example).
“It really feels like they've treated us like we're stupid and we don't have any value,” says Matthew Keys, a comedy-magic street performer.
As far as Westminster City Council is concerned, the policy “aims to improve the environment for street entertainers, for those watching and listening to them, and for those working nearby.”
A Westminster City Council spokesperson said, “The decision by the Licensing Committee to proceed with these proposals marks the first step towards an improved and suitably-managed future for this West End tradition, with the council providing support to the street performance community, whilst also addressing the many complaints received each year from residents and businesses over noise disruption and overcrowding.”
Among those who responded to consultation in favour of the restrictions on busking was Heart of London Business Alliance, a body paid by London businesses to represent them.
In its submission to the consultation, Westminster Property Association, an advocacy group which calls itself “the voice of property in central London”, said, “The regulation is also important in enabling the curation of a diverse range of content.”
In 2014, the Heart of London Business Alliance effectively paid the police to patrol Leicester Square to deal with problematic buskers. “I don't know if there has ever been a precedent for a private company turning the Metropolitan Police into their private police force,” says Broad.
The chair of the Heart of London Business Alliance, Adam Wiles, is the director of Gascoyne Holdings, a development company based in Covent Garden which owns “a range of high-quality mansion flats and significant commercial properties in the heart of London’s West End”. Wiles did not respond to a request for comment for this piece.
Heather Acton, the councillor leading the anti-busking charge, is a shareholder in property management company Universal Consolidated Group, which owns properties in the middle of Covent Garden. Buskers believe that she should have declared this in meetings but the council say that she did not because UCG has “no interests in the areas under consultation”.
The council's actions have come at a spectacularly bad time for buskers. No impact assessment has been carried out with regard to how performers’ income and mental health will be affected. In Camden, introducing a licence in 2014 caused complaints to increase, not decrease. That licensing scheme is “entirely different”, says a Westminster City Council spokesperson. “Theirs is a borough-wide scheme where anyone can perform with a licence anywhere. We have specifically designated pitches to make it clear where it is and isn’t appropriate to busk.”
When the changes come into effect, it will be a sad day for busking. On a normal summer afternoon in Covent Garden there are around 300 people watching ten separate shows a day, Broad says: “People standing there, clapping and laughing and cheering; sometimes even crying with laughter; kids having their first experience of a new art form; people who couldn't afford to go to an indoor show actually getting some free cultural entertainment right before their eyes.” If all these people wrote to the council to tell them how much they had enjoyed the shows, he says, the objections would be drowned out.
As it is, the complaints about a few buskers who can be dealt with through existing legislation will inevitably produce a more sterile London, its inoffensive and inaudible music “curated” by business conglomerates.