Canterbury: “Stop Criminalising Your Buskers, Start Supporting Them” (and Camden, you are beginning to look ridiculous!)

February 2015

Live events sector


As I grew up in Canterbury and indeed my father (and numerous friends) used to busk in the town centre I have decided to reproduce this entire article from the Keep Streets Live Campaign, a not-for-profit organisation which advocates for public spaces that are open to informal offerings of art and music. It aims to promote positive relationships between local authorities and street performers and to develop policies that support and sustain street culture. My father raised funds for Oxfam by playing the fiddle, dressed as a medieval musician and indeed played the crumhorn and other instruments with the Canterbury Waites!

The Council introduced guidelines to regulate busking in the City and these include rules such as buskers only staying in one place for up to an hour, and stopping by 9pm and were introduced after the Government passed the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, which gives local authorities the power to issue a community protection notice to anyone it can reasonably judge to be “having a detrimental effect, of a persistent or continuing nature, on the quality of life of those in the locality”.

Douglas Rattray, the head of Safer Neighbourhoods for the CCC, told the Canterbury Times that the Council’s new plans were not authoritarian saying “We’re not going to be unreasonable, but we do get complaints about busking from local residents, and we have been wondering how we deal with this.” While Mr Ratray said he would welcome acoustic music to the city “any day of the week”, he said habits like buskers who play the same song repeatedly, or use battery-powered amps to make their voices too loud, could turn people off local businesses. “This is an ancient city with a long history of street performers. We have no desire to discourage buskers in the city.”


This is what the Keep Streets Live Campaign said:

Canterbury City Council is using provisions in the Antisocial Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 originally designed to tackle severe and sustained anti-social behaviour to target buskers instead.

Buskers who do not comply immediately with the requests of public officials including council officers and police community support officers face being issued with the Orweillian ‘Community Protection Notices’ (CPNs). These can result in buskers being given criminal records, fines of up to £2500 and empowers the officers to use ‘reasonable force’ to seize and destroy musical instruments. These summary powers are not subject to adequate judicial oversight and turn individual council officers into judge and jury with the power to destroy a musician’s life in an instant.

Their Code of Conduct for busking turns civic officials into a poor man’s Simon Cowell by stating that ‘Where a performance is deemed to lack the expected standard you will be asked to cease performing’ and that performances should not be audible from more than 50 metres away (In fact, conversations can be audible at this distance let alone the playing of musical instruments). Bizarrely, in a city renowned world wide for its vibrant artistic, musical and cultural scene, buskers are told not to play to people sitting in outdoor cafe areas. No reason is given for this edict. Any breach of the ‘voluntary’ code of conduct can potentially lead to the issuing of a CPN at any time.

Whilst the council pay lip service to safeguards, in practise there are few. A CPN can be issued in minutes following any allegation of ‘unreasonable’ noise from a busker with no mention of how ‘reasonableness’ is established. The policy states that:

“Enough time should be left between the issue of a written warning and the issue of a CPN to allow the individual or body to deal with the matter. It will be for the issuing Officer to decide how long is allowed on a case-by-case basis”

In practise this could lead to a busker facing a lifelong criminal record, destruction of their livelihood and a punitive fine because they don’t stop playing a song immediately when told to do by a council official, who may well approach them in an antagonistic and provocative manner. This places an undue amount of power and authority over a person’s life in the hands of public officials and police community support officers who do not even have the training and experience of police officers. It undermines respect for the law, creates a relationship of antagonism between public officials and those they are paid to serve, and prevents them from dealing with people who are actually causing danger and harm to the public through genuine antisocial behaviour.

Canterbury is an ancient city with flourishing musical and cultural communities. It has a long and proud history of welcoming wayfarers, pilgrims and wandering minstrels as a certain Chaucer could attest. Busking is part of its life blood and cultural identity and these heavy handed and ill-conceived measures threaten to destroy it completely. The measures are also completely unnecessary because the council have existing powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to confiscate the musical instruments of people causing noise in the street provided they are actually causing a noise nuisance.

The Keep Streets Live Campaign is a not for profit organisation which exists to protect and support informal performances of art and music in public spaces. We have successfully challenged unjust council policies in Liverpool and York where we now work alongside the local authority in both cities to design a best practise guide for busking that works for the good of all. We also advise the Mayor of London on his ‘Busk in London’ scheme designed to make London the most busker friendly city in the world. We are urgently seeking the repeal of London’s anti-busking legislation by working with Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement Jones whose Live Music Act 2012 was a landmark victory for live music and culture in the UK. We invite Canterbury Council to abandon their attempt to criminalise and marginalise street musicians, and instead to work alongside the Musician’s Union, local buskers and the Keep Streets Live Campaign to design a policy that works for all such as the the best practise guide we developed alongside Liverpool City Council with the full participation of the busking community there and the Musician’s Union.

According to their policy document, Canterbury Council have introduced this policy because it is cheap and convenient to use these draconian new powers against buskers. It is shameful to prioritise administrative convenience over preserving long standing cultural and civic freedoms. What message do Canterbury Council’s leaders want to send out to the world? We eagerly await their response.

Camden, one of London’s trendier destinations, also seems to be having a bit of a dizzy spell and sent two ‘community wardens’ to stop a protest against the Council’s own anti busking regime (described by protestors as a call to “protest coercive soul sapping and anti creativity licensing law for busking” which has “criminalised the performance of music in public spaces’). It is all on film  and it all gets a bit silly at times with both sides trying to talk over each other (“no you listen to me”) but it’s an important debate.

The petition can be found here and more here

Keep Streets Live London petition is here

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