Live Music Exchange Blog

Camden Labour councillors target buskers – Hamish Birchall


Live music campaigner and jazz musician Hamish Birchall writes this week’s guest blog post on the ongoing campaign in Camden against the licensing of busking.  This forms a companion piece to Keep Streets Live campaigner Jonny Walker’s piece for Live Music Exchange about the campaign, and Karolina Doughty’s article on the role of street music for the ‘creative city’. (Please note that all  posts and comments on this site represent the views of the authors concerned and are not those of Live Music Exchange or any of its hosting or associated institution).

Please note that this blog was expanded and updated by the author on 21 March 2014.

Camden’s busking licences will come into effect on Monday 24th March. The regime, based on obscure busking provisions within the London Local Authorities Act 2000 (LLAA2000), makes it a potential criminal offence to sing in any Camden street or public open space without the licence, even unamplified and unaccompanied. Guardian coverage 11 March here:

The judicial review judgment delivered by Mrs Justice Patterson on 11 March concluded that the licence regime was ‘necessary and proportionate’, even adding that it would ‘harness economic growth’.  Read the judgment in full:

Apparently, the panoply of statute regulating public safety, noise nuisance and antisocial behaviour is either ineffective or too resource-intensive to control problem buskers in Camden.

The judge did not mention the Live Music Act 2012 (LMA) and there is now something of a conflict between Camden’s busking licence regime and the exemption within the LMA that applies across England and Wales for unamplified live music performance, 8am-11pm, to audiences of up to 200. The LMA was backed by the Coalition Government on the grounds that the potential for nuisance or public safety risks were already covered by separate legislation.  The potential for conflict with the LLAA2000 passed unnoticed – until now.

Would-be street singers in Camden will have to pay a £19 fee for a 12-month authorisation. A £47 application must be made for use of wind instruments (except flutes and recorders), amplification, percussion or to have more than two performers – for an uncertain outcome. Councillors have the power to object on behalf of residents.  All applicants must give their name and address, and will be assessed as a ‘fit and proper person’.  The maximum penalty for unlicensed performance is a £1000 fine, seizure of instruments and the sale of same to recover any unpaid fines.

In her judgment, Mrs Justice Patterson accepted that busking was in principle protected by the right to ‘freedom of expression’ (Article 10, European Convention on Human Rights), but added:

‘What is clear is that busking, whether commercial or not, is not the most important right of free expression in a democratic society. It is not akin to political speech. Applying the jurisprudence it is clear, in my judgement, that, although Article 10 is engaged, it operates at a low level.’

Since it is the performance of live music that is protected by Article 10, the conclusion must be that her discouraging view extends to all performances of live music in the UK, whether on on Camden streets or in the Royal Albert Hall.

Robin Bynoe, a flautist, lawyer and consultant with M Law LLP commented:
‘What an extraordinary idea that musical performance, because it is “not akin to political speech”, is apparently of much less significance in the great scheme of things and therefore protected by Article 10 only “at a low level”. This seems to reflect nothing more than the cultural priorities of the judge; and I would disagree.  Buskers do more to enhance the even flow of outdoor social life than political speakers (who unlike buskers are better kept indoors; even the good ones).  It is no accident that after six hundred and thirty eight years we still celebrate the Pied Piper of Hamlin but the Town Clerk is forgotten.’

But it gets worse. Camden’s lawyers argued that in terms of Article 10 rights, busking is on a par with the vending of pornography. The judge appeared to agree.

Empowered by her ruling, Camden Labour councillors wasted no time in seeking political capital out of the judge’s decision.

Earlier this week, residents of Camden Town and Primrose Hill received a letter about the recent busking court judgment from councillors Pat Callaghan, Richard Cotton and Lazzaro Pietragnoli:

‘We are really pleased to let you know that sleepless nights should soon become a thing of the past,’ they coo.

‘Plans to find a balance between Camden’s vibrant street-life, and the needs for us all to get a little peace and quiet, were given the go-ahead this week after a judge ruled that Camden Labour’s solution to the problem “balanced fostering busking-activity across the borough” with “the requirements of its residents and the well-being of Camden”‘.

‘Our borough is a vibrant place, that’s what makes it such a special [place] to live and visit.  The three of us are committed to maintaining that vibrancy, and ensuring that people continue to flock to our area.  First and foremost, however, our borough needs to work for the people, like us all, that live here.  That’s why when we saw a ten-fold increase about noise from some buskers disturbing people in their homes, we acted.’

A ten-fold increase? In fact this refers to a rise from about 0.2% to 2% of total annual noise complaints in 2012/13, probably due in part to increased post-Olympic tourism.  Many complaints were made by the same people. No analysis appears to have been done to see if different complaints referred to the same busking performances. The councillors don’t mention these important caveats.

‘To make sure we got the best solution for everyone, we consulted with residents, businesses and visitors on what they wanted,’ they add.

How many responded? They don’t say.  The answer is 152, and the majority (55%) were against the busking licence, either in principle or completely.  The population of Camden is about 250,000. Only 55 actual Camden residents responded to the survey, the balance comprising businesses, visitors and ‘others’.

The letter continues: ‘From 24th March this year, we will be introducing busking licences, for more details of these have a look at our website. We want to stress that this is not a ban on busking but will hopefully strike a balance between the rights of residents to a quiet life and buskers wishing to perform in public places.  The policy will restrict the use of amplified equipment, particularly close to residential areas, late into the evening.’

In fact, the use of loudspeakers in the street between 9pm and 8am has been restricted since the Control of Pollution Act 1974 – a fact even the judge acknowledged.

All local authorities have a wide range of powers to tackle noise nuisance, particularly the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which covers the use of musical instruments and amplification (as ‘equipment’).  Cities like Oxford, just as popular as Camden with tourists and buskers, have used this legislation recently against problem buskers:

The Camden Labour councillors don’t mention this either, perhaps because they uncritically accepted the view of Camden’s Culture and Environment Team that this legislation is ineffective against buskers, somewhat contradicted by the actions of Oxford City Council and others.

The councillors’ letter concludes: ‘We’d really love to hear your thoughts you have on this.  Just drop us an email. This is their Camden webpage:

On 14 March, Camden resident and musician Les Levidow wrote critically of the busking licence regime to his Labour councillor Meric Apak.  The reply included this telling sentence:

‘To clarify, we have not banned busking in Camden.  To suggest that people singing to their partners in our parks will be arrested is simply a barefaced lie.  Yet this is what some campaigners would want us to believe.’

Mr Levidow had not in fact cited singing in the park or indeed any other hypothetical scanario.  The park singing seems to have been volunteered by Mr Apak, in a reply curiously reminiscent of former Labour minister Kim Howells’ defence of the then Licensing Bill in 2003:

‘Dr Howells stood by earlier comments that the [Musicians] union was spreading a “pernicious lying campaign”.  He said: “…. what it [the union] is saying is nonsense. It thinks that a postman walking down a street and whistling will need a licence”.’ [Music Bill attack “pure fantasy”, The Times, 23 January 2003]

The Musicians Union had not claimed whistling postmen or any other outlandish examples were caught by the Licensing Bill, now the Licensing Act 2003.  It did warn correctly, however, that carol singing and wedding events could be licensable.

So what is it about Labour and the urge to micromanage live music?

As recently as 2009 then Labour licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe justified the criminalisation of pub pianos, unless licensed as an ‘entertainment facility’ under the Licensing Act 2003 on the grounds that they were only ‘theoretically innocuous’. [Letter, September 2009, to Labour MP Roger Berry (Kingswood, south Gloucestershire), responding to a constituent’s concerns about the Licensing Act and live music]

The requirement to licence the provision of entertainment facilities, from instruments to amplifiers or dance floors, was abolished by the Live Music Act in 2012.

Camden buskers meanwhile are seeking leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal.  Their campaign, ‘Keep Streets Live’, is led by a remarkable musician and former student of politics, Jonny Walker.  See

He has moral support from the Musicians Union and celebrity performer support: Billy Bragg and Mark Thomas have already demonstrated against Camden’s busking licence, and a protest event is planned for 24 March – see Jonny’s website for more info.

Link to Camden’s busking licence announcement:

Hamish Birchall

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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