Buskers and street performers have always divided opinion.
Some people will never understand the desire for being covered in silver paint and standing still for hours.
Others see the romanticism of artists earning a living from their talents on the street, or perhaps they just like acoustic covers of whatever is in the charts.
But Westminster council believes the number of complaints it receives about “problem” buskers has already passed a tipping point. It received 1,800 complaints last year, and 2,600 in 2017.
Now the authority has published a detailed set of policy ideas for regulating street performers that even includes banning them from long stretches of Oxford Street.
In those areas, performers could soon need to apply for a £20 licence, and be subject to the following conditions:
- A curfew on performing after 9pm
- Performances must not last more than 40 minutes, and must be followed by a 20-minute break
- Musicians will need an additional licence to sell merchandise such as CDs of their own music
- They will need public liability insurance
- They must not obstruct doorways, taxi ranks, alleyways or pavements
The council also wants to limit exactly where artists can perform. Different zones in the West End will have a number of “pitches” where performing will be permitted, and where different rules will apply.
Trafalgar Square would have three pitches, and busking outside them would be banned. In one of those pitches, outside Waterstones, the council will not allow amplifiers or drums.
Meanwhile, 1.2 miles of Oxford Street, from Tottenham Court Road to Hyde Park, would also have just three pitches – two at Marble Arch and the third by Debenhams.
Flouting the rules could incur fines of up to £1,000. So the days of confronting break dancers as you walk out of Oxford Circus station could soon be over.
But none of this would apply in Covent Garden, a notorious destination for street entertainment, where the buskers have set up a Street Performers Association (SPA), and abide by a voluntary Code of Conduct.
Ben Dixon, an SPA member and regular at Piccadilly Circus, makes “between £30 and £70 a day” playing pop covers with an amplified acoustic guitar and microphone.
“My main objection is the outright ban on using amps in Piccadilly, China Town and Wardour Street,” said the 26-year-old from Brixton.
“Without them it’s impossible to get anyone’s attention because of all the noise to compete with. If you tried to sing that loud for very long you’d do in your voice.”
He admitted some buskers cause a nuisance, but added: “We were shown a list of the complaints the council gets… a lot of them are about playing after 9pm, which is already banned, or about people having their amps too loud. But it’s the same people who are behind those things.”
Matt Boden, 35, went from homelessness to making a living from comedy routines in Trafalgar Square.
He agreed about the need for using amps: “Performing without a microphone will damage your throat. If the council’s policy comes through it will cause a big problem for orators and comedians like me. London has become a noisier place. Shops, taxis and rickshaws all play music, but we’re being targeted.
“We have 122 members in the Westminster Street Performers Association, and none of them are causing any trouble.”
The council is currently holding a public consultation on these policies so that it can get feedback from residents, businesses and performers before it makes any final decisions.
But it has argued strongly that change is needed.
Among the 1,800 complaints it received last year, common gripes included office workers subjected to hours of hearing the same songs every day.
More than 12,000 people live in the West End, and some of them dread the idea of a live band setting up outside their bedroom window after dark.
At a meeting on January 10, councillors and senior officers discussed how pedestrians are sometimes forced to walk in the street outside Nike Town in Oxford Street, when audiences block the pavement.
Councillor Ian Adams, the cabinet member for licensing, read out an email from a business owner whose offices overlook TK Maxx in Oxford Street. It said: “We are subjected to a guy playing the same beat and dancing on the spot… please, please help us. The noise sets off a migraine.”
Following the meeting, Mr Adams issued a statement saying: “We want to strike the right balance so everyone can enjoy street entertainment, and [have] developed our approach after a year’s engagement with key groups including residents, businesses and the busking community itself.
“We will now launch a six-week consultation on these plans and want as many people as possible to give us their views on our proposals.”
To learn more about the council’s consultation and further details of its proposals, click here.
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