Thursday, 24 October 2013

Camden Town and busking licences

Given the hysterical misrepresentation told about the council's supposedly "draconian" plans to introduce some licences for street buskers at one of London's most popular tourist attractions in a bid to help residents deal with the new wave of noise generated by some pretty industrial outfits, here are some comments made by residents:

"Busking as we used to know it, is no longer the issue here. The old style buskers have been muscled out. Instead, we're up against “combos”, complete with professional sound systems. As they are totally unregulated , they feel free to operate at any time of the day or night. Mornings tend to be quiet, but from noon onwards, until as late as three or four a.m. the onslaught is an occurrence we literally fear. Can you imagine what it would be like, if you were sitting at a desk working, and suddenly you couldn't hear your own music playing in your own home because a raucous noise had thundered into your space? When this happens, there is no escape, except to leave..."

"Of course we all like the fun and music of Camden Town. But something strange has happened in the last six months since the the City of Westminster expelled unlicensed street performers. It amounts to a new level of aggressive sound, with a disruptive fierceness unprecedented in all our years of living here... This noise makes a mockery of the Council's attempts, long and successful, to regulate the degree of sound generated by licensed premises".  

"Yesterday evening we had an amplified guitarist who responded to my plea for him to turn it down by turning it up and saying that "we should be used to the buskers by now", at the same time there a full band at Britannia Junction, then later in the evening (9ish) an amplified guitarist and pipe player." 

The comments are just a few showing the perception of 'ownership' some have over Camden's streets. Compromise is quite difficult when someone tells you to "Fuck Off" because they don;t want you to move them from their lucrative pitch.

Ultimately greed took over busking in Camden, and it couldn't self-regulate itself anymore.  But Camden's plans don't ban busking (that would be insane) but only introduce a few rules where there were none before, especially with amplified sound.  Claims that there will be no busking in Camden Town after this are totally over-blown (the fees for a licence are only £19/£32 amp a year) - given that the hundreds of thousands of tourists who go to the Market every weekend won't be going away.

Here's the eloquent view of a local resident:
For some time now we've been in touch with Camden Council about the exceedingly stressful recent escalation in busking in the centre of Camden Town. We have always made it clear that we did not oppose busking in principle, but that – like any other public activity in a complex multi-use area like Camden Town – busking had to share the same social and legal obligations as the rest of us here.
You listened and we are most grateful. The Proposal to Licence Busking in Camden has been very well thought through. Tony Hawkes, Senior Licensing Officer is to be commended. We have sent in our responses in the question part at the end, and we said how satisfied we were with almost everything in the document.
But now you will be receiving many letters from the performance side of this issue. We have friends in the singer/songwriter side of the industry, and they say that there are many heated email discussions going the rounds. Much of this discussion, we feel, would benefit from careful reading of the Camden Proposal, which answers, in advance, many of the performers' worries.
But specifically, we as citizens and taxpayers and residents do not respond well to the call for “free” busking, if free in this formulation means not having to pay, not having to contribute to the cost of maintaining, caring for, cleaning Camden Town. So if “free” busking means conducting street performances without licences, without fees, without paying taxes, we oppose that sense of “free”. The Borough of Camden must expect buskers to pay their share, even noting that the proposed fees are modest and more token than not.
Free” has other meanings as well. Some buskers argue that their use of loud instruments (drums, bongos, amplification, karaoke-style sound tracks, etc) is part of the freedom they demand. They cannot be granted this, nor does the Proposal suggest that they should.
  1. Very loud sound is not acceptable in a complex working and living community, a community of narrow streets (Camden Town) very much folded in upon itself.
  2. “Free” cannot describe a privilege restricted to a small group. A busker free to make any sound at any time radically reduces the civil freedom of everyone else within hearing: unlike almost any other behaviour, free busking refuses everyone else the option of not listening.
  3. It is well known among buskers that amplified busking can be highly intrusive upon none-amplified forms of busking. An amplified busker, in other words, much reduces the area in which other buskers are “free” to exercise their trade. (We've noticed on days when there are no drums or amplifications that several buskers of the old school can operate simultaneously in Camden Town, doing their trade and giving pleasure at the same time.)
It is important to remember the fact there had been an enormous escalation since Westminster Council effectively evicted its buskers in September 2012. It was around this time that the online story began to circulate, world wide, of how Camden was the only Council in London that was unable to control busking. Now, as a result, we have people from Spain, Mexico, Germany and France to name some that we have personally talked to. Several of the buskers in last Monday's rather well-behaved protest were in fact from distant parts of England, and were essentially protesting Camden's plans not to (in effect) underwrite their business activities by providing free spaces like Britannia Junction.
And also one of the quite irritating points that the buskers tend to raise is – If you don't like the loud sound, why do you live here? They evidently don't want to concede that many of us have been in Camden Town longer than these young people have been alive. The buskers, especially the ones that come from abroad, know only of the online reputation, and think of this place as free, talent spotting, performance area. Let them join the complex community by taking out reasonably priced licences, and observing civilised agreements about hours of busking, etc.
Finally, as to the coverage of the recent protest, we wish to state that we deeply deprecate the description of people like ourselves and of you, as being involved in “social cleansing”. This is extraordinarily ugly language, which utterly distorts our wish to continue to enjoy our lives in a complex and civil neighbourhood.


  1. It means: Westminster should allow back the big things at the centre. And Camden stay cameral this way. SIMPLE!

  2. Hello Theo,

    Jonny Walker here from ASAP! ( I think you make your points well and that the perspective of the residents that you quote here needs to be heard. I am going to write a full length response to this article and answer them in more depth but I thought I would make a couple of points initially.

    You state, 'Ultimately greed took over busking in Camden, and it couldn't self-regulate itself anymore' and also that the council are only introducing 'a few rules where there were none before'.

    Both these statements are misleading. There is an enormous range of legislation that covers behaviour in shared public spaces. If properly enforced these laws would deal with the examples of bad practise that are being used as a justification for the introduction of a policy that radically redefines the nature of shared public space. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 anybody making loud noise in the street and causing a statutory nuisance can be subject to enforcement action, noise abatement notices, and, as a last resort, the seizure of instruments. These powers already exist and could be used in Camden even now. They require a threshold of proof to be met and for officers to attend complaints in person but they are available to the Council without the need for a new law. If any busker told a Council Official or Resident to 'fuck off' then they are committing an offence under the Public Order Act and could be prosecuted. Likewise, any dangerous obstructions are unlawful under the Highways Act 1990 and the police have the power to move people on if they are causing a genuine problem. In other words, buskers already do, in the words of your eloquent resident, 'share the same social and legal obligations as the rest of us here'.

    Camden Council have an obligation to use public money wisely and sparsely at a time of austerity when cuts are being made to essential services. It is a widely accepted principle of good governance that all alternatives should be properly explored before a piece of new legislation is introduced. Camden could, and should have investigated the development of a Best Practise Guide for busking, in consultation with performers, residents, the police, businesses and other stakeholders, based around a framework of existing legislation and with building of good relationship in the community as a priority.

    The reason that Camden's plans to licence busking have provoked such mistrust and bad feeling is because they grant the Council an incredible range of new powers and criminalise the activities of anybody who busks without a licence,even if they are not creating any nuisance. Fines of up to £1000, seizure of instruments, selling instruments to pay the fines are exceptionally draconian measures. They are out of all proportion to the matter at hand and represent a coercive attempt to bully people into signing up to terms and conditions that directly affect them but they have had no say in drawing up. That's why the petition calling on Camden to rethink their plans has so far attracted 3500 signatures and why any attempt to dismiss these legitimate concerns and fears as the products of 'ultra-Libertarian angst' are seriously misguided.

  3. Thank you for your considered response, and your well-argued deputation - perspectives will differ depending on what which end of the lens you are looking down. For us, setting some light touch rules in place which deal primarily with the problem of amplified busking strike a good balance between needs of residents and those of buskers. Powers available to the authority are not adequate - they would be costly, time-consuming, ineffective or very draconian (are you suggesting we ASBO or injunct buskers?). Buskers making the choice to resist licences every step of the way, and therefore fall foul of the penalty regime, is not the same as using these powers summarily or at the first instance - but if this is confused it is something perhaps we should make clearer. There is a role here for organisations such as yourselves to help us implement this policy in as light a touch as possible, perhaps that would be a way forwards?

  4. Thank you for publishing my comment and for being willing to engage in a public conversation. I cannot agree with the description of these proposals as 'light touch' although, as a non-musician and non-busker I can see why you might think of them as light touch.

    Tonight, as you are probably aware, the Licensing Committee agreed to recommend the policy to full Council, with the added proviso that residents be now allowed to appeal against the decisions to offer licences if successful. Councillor Jonny Bucknall proposed that the Council suspend implementing the policy for 12 months and instead set up a buskers and residents forum to develop a code of practise framed around existing legislation for a trial period. Councillor Tom Simon did not see why this legislation had to apply across the entire Borough of Camden when the vast majority of complaints arose in Camden Town itself. Both these sensible proposals were dismissed on sadly predictable party grounds.

    I am a Labour Party member and union activist. I am dismayed at the failure of Labour to listen to my thoughtful concerns, and those of the Musician's Union who represent 30,000 working musicians. Tonight, the Councillors who voted against the policy were characterised as being 'against the residents' by their fellow committee members. This whole debate is being framed in such a divisive way. There has got to be a better way of dealing with the issues than what is being proposed here.

    1. I agree that the debate is a bit "divisive", but I can;t see why that's the fault of residents. Perhaps words like "draconian" and misrepresentation of the actual proposals/finger jabbing by Mark Thomas etc wasn't such a good place to start. Councillors have their own opinions - both Simon and Bucknell don't represent Camden Town or other town centres (you'll find that those cllr who do, support these measures) but would be the first to complain if there was noisy displacement.

  5. Please read City Of Quartz by Mike Davis. Best wishes. I lived in Camden, on Royal College Street. I'm not sure what you mean by the noise pollution. An exaggeration, don't you think? The traffic is much louder.

  6. Theo - Firstly you have not actually responded to Jonny's arguments. Please do so. Secondly, I attended the council meeting. I couldn't quite understand why every single Labour councillor voted for the motion? Please explain

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  7. If there really was a noise pollution problem, why give everyone crap?