Westminster City Council has proposed anti-busking laws that would make it illegal to perform in virtually the entire West End.
Under the new scheme, performers would have to apply for a Busking Licence, a Street Trading License (if they want to sell their original music), have £2 million public liability insurance, and would not be able to work with many tools of the trade, including many props used by the world-famous performers in Covent Garden. There would also be a mandatory twenty-minute break between each forty-minute show, effectively reducing the number of performances by one third. And if they didn’t adhere to these new rules, they could be arrested, fined and have their equipment seized.
The result will be that dozens of performers will have their shows banned, and hundreds of performers will be competing for just 25 pitches in a borough measuring 21 million square meters.
Multiple arts organisations have condemned the restrictions, citing that not only has the council failed to implement current laws that deal with genuinely antisocial busking, but that several current, proven, alternative regulatory systems would work better for residents, businesses and street performers.
Despite reassurances from Westminster City Council at the start of the consultation process that they would involve street performer organisations in any discussions around these potential new laws, the buskers associations have largely been ignored.
The Heart of London BID has stated, in their response to the consultation period, that their and other businesses' multi-million pound development plans in the city hinge on better management of street performers. The Northbank BID (that includes the National Gallery as a member, which tried to get buskers banned from Trafalgar Square in 2018) voiced similar concerns, but also noted that the council had placed a proposed busker pitch in the middle of a busy and dangerous roundabout. And the Westminster Property Association believes the proposals are “important in enabling the curation of a diverse range of content”, something that should trouble any advocate of the freedom to express oneself.
The coronavirus pandemic has already devastated London’s street performing community, who have no access to the coronavirus relief funds, and who’ve seen their audience disappear. These new laws attempt to codify this new landscape, one where few performers can still make a living in Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square or in the other tourism hotspots.
A period of consultation between Westminster City Council, residents, local businesses, performers and their unions has been ongoing since January. A verdict expected in November. As yet, none of the performers’ concerns or suggestions seem to have been taken into account.