|Fredy Beats performing (https://www.facebook.com/fredybeats/?fref=ts)|
Written alongside Jonny Walker, founder and director of the Keep Streets Live Campaign.
The latest episode in Camden Council’s ongoing crusade against busking, which is seeing two young performers facing a court hearing and charges of at least £675, is perhaps the clearest example yet of the profoundly undemocratic way that this council operates.
Camden is a Labour-run council in one of London’s most diverse boroughs, where over 140 languages are spoken and 12 million day visits are made each year for a taste of Camden’s vibrant street culture. You might therefore expect a more tolerant approach towards individual artists hoping to make a living through their craft. Instead, it is apparent that some elements of Camden’s diversity are favoured over others.
This current case is largely based on the complaints of a couple who live near Britannia Junction, the famous hotspot for busking beside the HSBC and Camden Town tube station. They are well-known for their opposition to busking, as their consistent complaints played a significant part in Camden’s decision to licence busking in November 2013.
However, when I spoke to them as part of my research into Camden’s regulations in 2014, it was clear that they had a problem with more than just ‘noise’. In fact, they have a dislike for any busking they deem ‘professional’ (which effectively means any busker with an amplifier) because they see buskers as people who are rolling in money yet don’t pay any tax on what they earn. The same complaints were made in this latest case, along with a spurious claim that busking causes pickpocketing.
And yet, as my research showed, they have a considerable amount of influence within the council. They are on first-name terms with all of the relevant council officers, and as articulate, wealthy, tax-paying residents with a large community network, councillors have always been keen to keep them on side. Based purely on their complaints and ‘evidence’ which consisted of a few photographs, council officers tracked one of the performers in the current case, Fredy Garcia, on CCTV multiple times and continually hounded him with emails telling him to go through the licensing process.
Fredy had good reasons for not applying for a licence. Costing a non-refundable fee of £47 for 12 months – and knowing other musicians who have been rejected and not refunded – Fredy couldn’t take the financial risk. Clearly, not many people earning a living through busking could afford to risk losing £47 in one go, or sit around for weeks waiting for their application to be processed.
And why should they have to? Because if you look at all of the photographic evidence being brought against Fredy, nearly every image shows him bringing smiles to the faces of everyone in the large crowds that he attracts.
So my questions are the following:
- How is it at all fair or democratic that a small group of wealthy, articulate residents have such a strong influence on those in power, while those on the receiving end of the council’s punishments do not?
- Why are people who are clearly making Camden a happier and more vibrant place being treated like criminals?
Camden Council is an institution that is supposed to help, protect and serve all of the wonderfully diverse people that live and work in their borough. It’s time they started acting like it.
A good start would be to not pursue unnecessary and draconian criminal charges against aspiring young artists, which cast such dark shadows over their future prospects.