More than 10,000 people oppose Labour’s anti-social behaviour-busting initiative saying it criminalises the vulnerable and even unauthorised buskers.
Street drinking, legal highs, rough sleeping and begging are targeted by Cheshire West and Chester Council’s proposed Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), covering Chester city centre, with a public consultation currently under way.
But so far 6,758 people have signed an online petition at change.org headed ‘Don’t make life harder for the homeless, don’t criminalise your buskers’. Another has attracted 2,220 names while an online protest on 38 Degrees has gained 1,522, making a grand total of 10,500.
Controversially, proposed prohibited behaviour includes that no person ‘would be allowed to lie down or sleep in any public space’. Another contentious element is a suggested busking ban except on a designated pitches, with musicians forced to pass a quality test to gain approved status.
A draft order reveals transgressors face a maximum £100 fixed penalty notice or a fine of up to £1,000 on conviction at court if they continue with banned activities within the designated zone when asked to desist.
Chester’s Labour MP Chris Matheson believes anti-social behaviour must be addressed but would like to see the busking element dropped along with the plan to make it an offence to feed the birds.
He said: “I like the artistic freedom and spontaneity of busking. Going after buskers is wrong. Going after people feeding the birds is wrong. Are they going to go after me and my two girls when we feed the birds along the canal?”
However, Mr Matheson understands there are issues that need addressing such as organised begging by people with no link to Chester and the taking of legal highs. But he fears the risk of unintended consequences and says the “drafting has to be right”.
In terms of the homelessness, the MP added: “If there is homelessness then we need more and better housing and more support for those with addictions.”
But Mr Matheson said the outsourcing of NHS services meant support for people with substance abuse problems had recently 'been slashed' in Chester.
Auditions for buskers?
Buskers are split over whether the PSPO is a good or bad idea. Jonny Walker, founder of the Keep Streets Live campaign, who set up the original petition, said: “If you were to busk without authorisation or in a place where the council decide they don’t want you to busk then you would be committing a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record. We think this is a very very silly way to go.”
But guitarist Andy Martin, a long-time busker in Chester city centre, can see the point of having quality assessments for street entertainers.
Andy, of Bouverie Street, Chester, said: “It’s not a bad idea if you think about. I go back to 1984, I’ve been playing for 41 years and I do teach as well and you will get some people coming on, they’ve only been playing for six months and you don’t learn much in six months.”
Andy accepted conflicts sometimes arose when buskers played outside shops but would encourage retail staff to ask the buskers themselves to “turn it down” rather than reporting the matter to the police or the council.
The council proposes designated busking areas to avoid such conflicts, but Andy responded: “A good friend of mine Thor, who has busked before, a fellow musician, came out with the best idea – rather than having allocated places. I think it would be better, as Thor has said, to tell us where we can’t play and then we can work out to our own devices where we do play.”