WITH less than a week to go until strict new rules are imposed on Liverpool's street performers, a musician who says his life was changed by his busking experiences is launching a fight-back.
'By signing up to this policy performers
give tacit legitimacy to a policy that,
at root, is coercive and restrictive'
Liverpool-born singer/songwriter Jonny Walker, 31, is taking to the city streets this week in a bid to strike a chord of a different kind. He is seeking public support for a petition against “a highly prescriptive and restrictive new licensing scheme”.
The busker is imploring Mayor Joe Anderson and city officials to think again, and is urging fellow entertainers to boycott the charter.
The new measures, revealed exclusively by Liverpool Confidential last month, will see all street entertainers forced to pay for permits and public liability insurance to perform on designated pitches, most of which must be booked in advance.
And in perhaps the most controversial move, council officials and police will become civic Simon Cowells – with new powers to halt acts which they deem are not up to scratch.
Already buskers have been handed letters by city centre managers informing them that they are currently trespassing* - a move which London-based Walker - founder of the Association of Street Artists and Performers - describes as “using a whopping great sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut”.
But the city council insists that the new system will actually increase the number of pitches and provide a balance between buskers and other city centre users, with a spokesman telling Liverpool Confidential: “Its effect will not be to stop street entertainment but is intended to bring a better managed environment for performers, businesses and the public alike.”
Indeed, the move will “delight” shoppers and stores, according to Liverpool's Business Improvement District which looks after the interests of major city centre retailers renting outside the Liverpool One zone.
City BID boss Ged Gibbons says: "These measures will greatly enhance Liverpool's ability to attract the very best buskers and will add a new dimension to the visitors experience...Buskers themselves will benefit from a better regulated process...retailers and shoppers will be delighted the city has finally made this leap."
Walker, who studied politics and had planned to become a barrister before before giving it all up to become a full-time busker 10 years ago, disagrees: “As someone who has had several meetings with the council to ask for my views about the new policy before it was put forward, and as drafter of a document for Liverpool city council that made substantial recommendations on how to better manage the street scene, I am very well placed to say that this new policy will not attract the best buskers to the city or add to the vibrancy of the streets.
“The only dimension that will be added to the 'visitor experience' will be that of the major streets of Liverpool largely empty of street performers, with a scattering of pre-approved events at pre-approved peripheral locations.”
In a letter to Mayor Anderson and Councillor Steve Munby, Cabinet member for Neighbourhoods, Walker urges a U-turn.
“The policy has been written entirely from the perspective of seeing busking and street performance as a potential nuisance that needs to be tightly managed, controlled and regulated” he writes.
“But street performance is none of these things. It is a bell-mark of the cultural life of a city, it is part of the lifeblood of a place like Liverpool which has a deserved reputation as a European Capital of Culture. It is something that arises spontaneously, organically, it is a platform for emerging artists and it is an undoubted tourist attraction.”
He adds: "I believe that the council has made a doubtlessly well-intentioned, but serious policy error.”
Under the new rules, performers must be over 18 – which, says Walker - would have prohibited the likes of George Sampson – the street dancer who won Britain's Got Talent – from doing his show in Liverpool, or even George Harrison who was just 15 when he joined the Quarrymen.
“Instead he would have been served a trespass notice and threatened with arrest."
Entertainers must also be eligible to work in the UK: “Now the council is acting in the capacity of immigration service and border control as well as talent show judge," he remarked.
"Liverpool is a city of poets, musicians, renegades and misfits. There is a lively and varied street scene. Break-dancers, opera singers, mime artists, African drummers, Gypsy Bands, singer/songwriting acoustic strummers and squeeze-box players all play their parts in the interweaving tapestry of the city’s streets."
“It is because I care deeply about Liverpool, the city of my birth, that I have decided to launch this petition. I am urging the council to reconsider this policy now, and get back to the drawing board with a policy that will not have such a negative impact and takes into account the interests of all the citizens of and visitors to Liverpool. "
A spokesman for the City BID said that buskers would be given a month to get their houses in order and the scheme would be closely monitored, but essentially it is council policy and the new regulations are not open to change. He added that performers could book slots on the Summer of Love bandstand in Williamson Square.
But Walker said: "This policy is so restrictive that we would advise any street performer not to sign up to it. By signing up to this policy performers give tacit legitimacy to a policy that, at root, is coercive and restrictive. We would advise any potential street performers in Liverpool to join our campaign against this policy."
The City Council spokesman added: “While we will certainly consider what is being said in this e-petition we would point out that the new policy was agreed after a long and thorough consultation process which included city centre businesses, members of the public and street performers themselves.
“What is being implemented is standard practice in other major UK cities, including Manchester and London. There will be no auditions held before granting licenses. The City Council, Merseyside Police and City Centre Management Team have also received petitions –as well as complaints from members of the public and businesses, protesting about buskers.”
The petition, which has attracted more than 500 signatures already, is here.
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