I am a Liverpool born singer-songwriter and street performer and an accidental activist. Until three years ago I was just a professional busker who travelled from town to town making a living by playing music on the streets in between gigs, but in the summer of 2012 Liverpool Council introduced a new policy that threatened the future of spontaneous street performance in that city. All would-be buskers were to be required to hold £10million public liability insurance, pay for a photo license card and face strict and arbitrary limits on where and when they could play. Under 18s were to be banned from the streets altogether. Any buskers who didn't sign up for the license were to be prosecuted for 'trespassing' on a public highway.
Busking at its heart is about democratic access to public space. A busker turns up on a public highway and performs for the passersby, and they can either show their appreciation or just walk on by. Busking has the capacity to create a sense of urban community and make public spaces more welcoming. I quickly understood that Liverpool's plans were a direct attack on all that was great about the busking tradition and so I set up my first petition on Change.org, Keep Spontaneous Street Performance Alive which gathered over a thousand signatures in its first few days. The Keep Streets Live Campaign was born.
Thanks to the publicity generated by our petition we were quickly able to organise a performer boycott of Liverpool's coercive busking license scheme, quickly followed by a street protest that was widely covered by the media and, with the help of a campaigning solicitor, a High Court challenge against the council's policy. Under pressure, Liverpool abandoned their controversial policy and went on to invite the Keep Streets Live Campaign and Musician's Union to develop new guidance for busking in the city that was introduced last year and safeguards the spontaneity which is so important to the busking tradition.
Our next campaign was in York where a petition quickly gathered over 4000 signatures and led to the Council abandoning a highly restrictive scheme which required all buskers to audition and pay for a license. Once again York City Council worked alongside campaigners introducing new guidance for busking based on the more open and collaborative approach pioneered in Liverpool.
Civic freedoms in public spaces face new challenges as a result of the sweeping new powers given to local authorities in the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which has been described as a 'law against nearly everything'. Oxford City Council drew up plans under this act to make 'non-compliant' busking a criminal offence punishable by fines of up to £1000 in a wide ranging PSPO (Public Space Protection Order) which also targeted rough sleepers, pavement art and begging. Our petition against Oxford's scheme has so far reached nearly 5000 signatures and received an enormous boost when Liberty issued Oxford City Council with a legal challenge against their 'unlawful plans to criminalise homeless people and buskers' which caused the council to withdraw their policy on the very day their Executive Board was due to vote it through. Our latest petition asks Birmingham City Council to abandon their proposal to use a PSPO to criminalise the use of amplification in the city, whether by buskers, political protestors or street preachers. We aim to draw upon our successes in Liverpool, York and elsewhere to show local authorities across the UK there is a much better alternative to reactionary clampdowns on cultural freedoms in public space.