The founder of a national pro-busking campaign fears Cheshire West and Chester Council will become ‘civic Simon Cowells with a nasty twist’ if it introduces a controversial city centre zone aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour.
Liverpool-born busker Jonny Walker is against moves to hold a consultation over a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) which received the backing of the Labour cabinet with the support of the Tory group.
A draft order reveals the council is considering fining rough sleepers, beggars and people consuming alcohol and legals highs in public within the city centre zone.
But Jonny is particularly incensed by plans to restrict busking to designated areas, with musicians forced to gain ‘approved busker’ status by passing quality tests.
Jonny, founder of the Keep Streets Live campaign, argued: “In a wide-ranging proposal to tackle ‘anti-social behaviour’ in the city using controversial new Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) powers, they are also planning to criminalise buskers who haven’t passed a ‘quality assessment’ first through the private business group CH1 BID company.
“This proposal turns council officials into civic Simon Cowells with a nasty twist, the power to give musicians a criminal record for singing songs on the streets. It is an attack on the spontaneity and informality which is part of what makes busking such an integral part of Chester’s cultural heritage.”
Jonny, who has started an online petition, told The Chronicle it was far better for local authorities to work with buskers in agreeing how to regulate busking as has happened in Liverpool, Canterbury and York. He says legislation already exists to tackle individual buskers if a nuisance arises but the CWaC proposals targeted the whole busking community.
He even opposes the three-month consultation because it gives the council proposals ‘credence’.
And he is not alone in voicing concerns. There has been a social media backlash from people complaining of a heavy-handed approach and The Chronicle has been contacted by civil rights group Liberty who are particularly concerned about restrictions on rough sleepers and have successfully fought similar proposals elsewhere.
Cllr Nicole Meardon, member for children and young people, told cabinet members about the thinking behind the PSPO vision which had been made possible by the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014.
She told fellow councillors: “Despite the city of Chester being one of the best preserved walled cities in the United Kingdom and in many ways a unique city, it does face a number of challenges in terms of crime and disorder that can impact on its image and public perception as well as the lives of people that work and live in the city.
“This proposal intends to address some of these issues so that everyone can enjoy public spaces safe from crime and anti-social behaviour.”
Responding to critics, she said: “This proposal is not about criminalising the homeless and the vulnerable but it does recognise that we have a fundamental problem within Chester.”
She accepted current provision for the homeless was ‘failing to meet their needs’ and should be reviewed before a PSPO was introduced.
Labour colleague Cllr Bob Bissett, who is also chief executive of charity Chester Aid to the Homeless, welcomed such a review adding that it was ‘not easy’ for the current provider to monitor and manage the city centre ‘as is necessary’. His backing for the current PSPO proposals was conditional on better support.
He commented: “My approach to this is simple. I asked myself two questions and came up with the same answer to both. Should rough sleepers be allowed to sleep on the Rows in Chester? The answer was a very firm no. Should rough sleepers be criminalised for sleeping on the Rows of Chester if there is inadequate provision of service for them to access? The answer was no again.”
Hoole Labour Cllr Angie Chidley, who campaigned against the relocation of city centre homeless provision to Boughton under the previous Tory administration, welcomed the consultation but raised fears around the displacement of problems to her ward, which lies outside the proposed zone.
Fellow ward member Cllr Alex Black, a former police officer, recounted with humour how his wife Janet used to work in an office off Eastgate Street and every summer a Scottish piper would play Mairi’s Wedding on the bagpipes all day long meaning staff couldn’t open the windows.
“Janet used to complain about it time and time again but nothing could be done about it,” he said.
Tory councillor Lynn Riley, opposition spokesperson for environment and community, backed the move on behalf of the Conservative group.
She said: “For too long we have been trying to find creative solutions to some of the city’s issues out of a ‘hotch potch’ of legislation so we need the flexibility of better regulation that the Act had brought in.
“We welcome that it puts the local solution to local problems into local hands, so that we are no longer ticking target boxes for Whitehall but responding to local needs.”
Her recommendations to include responsible dog ownership and chugging –a form of street fundraising used by charities sometimes called ‘charity mugging’ – will be considered by the cabinet.
Rosie Brighouse, legal officer for Liberty, said: “Begging and sleeping rough are not lifestyle choices or antisocial behaviour – they’re usually a result of extreme poverty. Instead of criminalising the city’s poorest and most vulnerable, issuing them with a fine they can’t possibly afford to pay and pushing them further to the margins, Cheshire West and Chester Council should focus on helping them.
“We strongly urge councillors not to pursue these counterproductive measures, which have been met with almost universal opposition in other parts of the country.”