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Update: The Fight to Keep Street Live in Camden – Jonny Walker


This week’s blog post offers an update on the Keep Streets Live Campaign which is challenging Camden Borough Council’s decision in November 2013 to license busking within the Borough, supported by musicians such as Billy Bragg and Jon Gomm and comedians including Mark Thomas and Bill Bailey. Founding director of ASAP! (Association of Street Artists and Performers), Jonny Walker, offers an update on the Campaign’s progress and explains how to get involved.

As part of our ongoing mission to protect public space as a legitimate forum for informal performances of art and music , the Keep Streets Live Campaign has launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for a historic legal challenge against the decision of Camden Council to introduce draconian controls against busking across the entire borough. Human rights solicitors Leigh Day, acting on our behalf, have served papers against the Labour-led council in the High Court, asking a judge to rule its new busking policy unlawful on the grounds that it is disproportionate, unlawfully wide in its scope, and that it breaches Article 10 of the Human Rights Act – Freedom of expression – which includes music and not just the written and spoken word.


On November 11th 2013 Camden Council narrowly passed a resolution which introduced the most restrictive busking policy in modern UK history across the 22 square kilometres of this diverse and vibrant metropolitan borough of London. Under this new legal framework, singing and playing music in the streets, even if just done for fun, in any public space in Camden has become a criminal offence unless a person had first successfully applied and paid for a licence by demonstrating to a council panel that they are a ‘fit and proper person’ to hold a licence. Buskers face fines of up to £1000 for ‘unlicensed’ busking, for breaching the terms and conditions of their licence, or even, strangely, for ‘causing another person to busk’. The local authority, the police and even private contractors will have the power under this law to seize the musical instruments and equipment from people by force and to sell them if fines have not been paid after 28 days. These powers are not even available to bailiffs who, when collecting debts from people, are forbidden from taking the tools of a person’s trade.

Not content with making potential criminals of all musicians who wish to play on the street, Camden Council has created a complex two-tier busking licence scheme which discriminates against musicians depending on their instrument of choice. If you play acoustic guitar then you pay £19 and wait five working days, after which time you may be granted a ‘standard’ licence. However, if you want to play as part of an ensemble, use any wind or percussion instrument, or use any amplification then you are excluded from the ‘standard’ licence and required to apply for a ‘special’ licence. This costs £47 pounds and takes at least 20 working days to apply for. Strict terms and conditions will be imposed on the successful ‘special’ licence applicant and people who don’t want the busker to hold a licence will be able to appeal against the decision to grant the licence, which may then be withdrawn summarily.  Any breach of the terms and conditions of the licence will itself be a criminal offence. It is likely that this policy will greatly reduce opportunities for spontaneity, joy and colour from the street music scene in Camden.

Busking and public space are intertwined. Busking, by its nature is an informal and impromptu performance of art and music in a space that is open to the public. It is a very democratic cultural phenomenon, open to anybody who wants to share their art with passersby.  At a time when high streets are under pressure from rapid social change, the rise of internet shopping and out of town shopping developments, buskers create a unique sense of place and community in urban landscapes that are otherwise dominated by the same multinational companies.  They are part of a small vanguard against the forces of homogenization and dull conformity. Introducing compulsory licences and charges for busking and harsh criminal penalties for non-compliance is likely to make these urban public spaces less accessible to those who need the forum of the streets the most: the young musicians just starting out, the excluded, the vulnerable, the poor and the marginalized. It is a form of urban sanitization, social exclusion and pre-emptive punishment and it serves to deprive public spaces and the people who use them of exposure to street culture such as art and live music. Some might be tempted to say that this is not just a mistaken decision by Camden Council, but an act of cultural vandalism.

For many visitors and residents, street music is an integral part of Camden’s cultural identity. Camden Council is happy to draw upon its musical identity when it suits them to do so:

Camden Town is internationally renowned as one of the most dynamic and unique places in London.

Iconic for its alternative fashions and acclaimed music scene, the markets, shops and entertainment venues draw the crowds in their thousands”

Despite these words, Camden Council’s actions speak much louder. In response to complaints about busking from a total of 56 people in a Borough with 220,000 residents, the Council has introduced some of the most draconian controls against street music of any local authority in the country. It has ignored a petition signed by 6294 people asking it to pull back from its decision; it has chosen not to take up the offer of the Musicians’ Union, a body representing 30,000 musicians, to help them develop a fair and transparent busking policy based on good practice in other cities across the UK; and it has disregarded the hundreds of people who have joined us on the streets of Camden to protest this draconian new law alongside comedians Mark Thomas and Bill Bailey and musicians Billy Bragg and Jon Gomm.

Now, we are asking a High Court judge to strike down this damaging law and to ask Camden Council to come up with a different policy, one that protects the diversity and vibrancy of this unique and special part of London.  The generous contributions of our supporters have made this legal challenge possible and will help us protect public space nationally as a forum for grassroots culture.

To find out ways in which you can help and to make a donation please visit this link.

For regular campaign updates please visit:-

Keep Streets Live Campaign website


Keep Streets Live Campaign Facebook Page

Jonny Walker
Founding director of ASAP! (Association of Street Artists and Performers)

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5 thoughts on “Update: The Fight to Keep Street Live in Camden – Jonny Walker

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  1. The big issue with Camden is ‘the Council’ themselves and how the way they went about processing their recent, by ‘national’ Uk standards, extremely restrictive, ‘draconian’ legistlation concerning street performers and street performing in the city borough.

    The new law that could ‘criminalise’ buskers in Camden was claimed to be based on correct response to local complaints about ‘noise’ nuiscance etc. Upon analysis though Jonny Walker has shown in a presentation to the Council that in actual fact complaints were ‘minimal’ and the complaints that did have some merit could have easily been dealt with by other ‘fairer’ and more balanced means.

    In this context Camden Council especially their Security Officer Abdul Hai – Labour – stand accused of mis-representation of the facts, political sophistry and ‘specious’ reasoning on this issue, an issue that effects the lives and livelihoods of many ‘good’ people. ( see ‘short’ You Tube video – Jonathan Walker, Deputation, Camden, October 2013 ).

  2. Street Performance is a ‘valid’ lifestyle choice in this the Post-Modern world.

    A ‘popular’ Street Performer in both Birmingham and Stratford upon Avon for 3 years my interests include: e.g

    Russian Literature, Modern Philosophy, ‘Radical’ History ( Romantics to The Beats ), ‘Progressive’ Education, Philosophy of Art, Cultural Theory and Musicology. Additional: Russian ‘Urban’ Climbing ( psychology ), Chinese Philosophy, Calisthenics, Ashtanga Yoga and Mov’Nat’.

    Its true, ‘Streetperformers’ can help bring communities together, add some ‘colour’, entertainment, art and beauty and ‘spiritual’ upliftment in the everday, and otherwise ‘humdrum’ lives of people. Its also a truism based on ‘personal’ experience that ‘Street’ performing approached with the ‘right’ attitude and positive state of mind, can as a lifestyle be a ‘beautiful’ way

    Thanks to Jonny and the ASAP for recognising the value and worth of Street Artists and Performers across the land. Theres a lot of human ‘potential’ going to waste in this country at the moment, and ‘busking’ is a great way of building it.

    Let our politicans and so called ‘authorities’ find ways to encourage and nurture ‘talent’ across the community not cynically stifle, hinder or possibly destroy it through petty mindedness and repressive ‘draconian’ policy.

  3. Well done for all your efforts so far and on going, Jonny.

    This is a great example of someone being the change they want to see in the world. Although Jonny no longer lives in Camden, he is fighting for the freedom and quality of life in the borough, spending all his personal time, not to mention money, to stop the pointless, left-wing bureaucracy which is our government trying to clamp down and control every aspect of the public’s lives.

    Jonny has seen that the judgement and enforcement in this one local government will lead to a more national problem, curtailing the freedom of our creative people and the very culture of British music and arts.

    You only need to think back to how many music artists, which are now national treasures, who started their career’s busking on the streets of England.

    It will be sad day when the streets fall silent.

  4. ‘Lets us become dancers through life!’

    I’ve just put the ‘feelers’ out to a few people I know who could be ‘key’ to getting a charity raising event in support of the Camden Campaign going up here in Birmingham

    No promises though, but I am trying. Kinda takes me back to my ‘brief’ project working days with a prominent housing association in Moseley Birmingham a few years back and the biggest Xmas party ‘hostel’ residents had ever had.

    Managed to get ‘Dance’ DJ’s to take part and with the enthusiastic help of my then girlfriend collected food donations incl. wine, turkey etc from all over the suburb. The first time I’d seen a Paranoid Schizophrenic and Manic Depressant do a slow tango, waltz, I don’t know a ‘slow’ dance, ‘smooch’ together.

    Yeah, fear, anxiety, depression they are ‘physical’ things and you’ve got to get physical, change the body………….do a run,
    lift weights, walk, get some fresh air, or even stay indoors
    and yes party, dance together…….

    My experience working in the ‘hostels’ of South Birmingham was only a brief one. Why? Was it the ‘money’ ?, Did’nt I get some
    kind of ‘intrinsic’ reward out of the job eg. ‘autonomy’, ‘mastery’ , ‘purpose’?. Well yes I successfully attained all of these things, the work ‘was’ personally satisfying, it was just that 3 or so weeks later after ‘Nunehams’ now infamous xmas party I was summoned to the Care Managers office and ‘fired’!.

    Looking back on it, I ask myself, what ultimately ‘motivated’ me to get involved in organising such an event, the ‘mother’ of all christmas party’s for a group of people who were essentiall mentally ill?

    I don’t know, but some of my ‘core’ sentiment back then and indeed today, are echoed in the words of philosopher Mary Warnock and her retort to Jean Paul Sartres notion of ‘absolute’ freedom.

    ‘ At the end of the day, if you give people a choice between
    eating coal for breakfast or scrambled eggs on toast, most
    people will choose the the scrambled eggs…………………….’

    Its funny how despite the fascinating pull of ‘other-world’ philosophies, continual embroilment in ‘ethical’ debate and an active engagement with ‘speculative’ metaphysics at the end of the day how mysteriously we always find ourselves drawn back to a reliance on that ‘naturalistic, common-sense, realist philosophy of life.

    Oh yes The Human Conditon and how it presents itself through ‘direct’, lived experience, the human mind, and the ‘immediate’ senses. I guess back then as a Hostel Project Worker and today as a humble Street Performer, I just feel very comfortable and confident, compelled even, to do what in the circumstances simply ‘feels’ right!.

  5. Where does this hypocrisy end? There are 32 London boroughs not including the “square mile” City of London. If they all levied a similar £19 minimum annual licence fee upon street musicians then the cost of one’s individual “freedom” to perform music to passers-by in London would be £608.

    Camden has, effectively, set a precedent for a charter that outlaws musicians in all public spaces throughout London. Terrible!

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