Public Spaces Protection Orders are out of control

On Monday 15th August, a new Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) will come into force in Birmingham, banning all busking from two of the most profitable locations in the city. There are a number of councils around the country who have introduced restrictions on busking using PSPOs, but Birmingham City Council’s decision to introduce a blanket ban on busking in these areas, whether or not they are acting reasonably and considerately, is unusual.

Despite assurances from Shirley Williams during the introduction of the PSPO as a tool to clamp down on anti-social behaviour that “they (PSPOs) should not use the new powers to stop reasonable activities such as busking or other forms of street entertainment that are not causing anti-social behaviour”, these rules are being flouted up and down the country. Why? Because there are no mechanisms in place to stop them.

The case of the Birmingham Busking Ban is particularly egregious. A Freedom of Information Request released during the consultation period showed that, of the 81 complaints received by the council about busking in the two areas specified, 77 were from the same individual. He is well known in the area as someone who has a track record of verbal aggression towards the city’s street entertainers, particularly the young female ones.

When this information was revealed, we were confident in the busking community that the council would have to rethink their plans. Surely the fact that a maximum of 5 people had made complaints about buskers over the course of a whole year was not enough to introduce a blanket ban? But their argument during a meeting was that they are under an obligation to act on noise complaints regardless of whether or not that complaint was reasonable. This is an utterly absurd approach to take.

The public consultation that was held made national headlines and prompted a wave of support for Birmingham’s buskers. However, the council are currently refusing to release the results of this consultation until up to midway through September. They will be fully aware that the only way to overturn a PSPO is to launch a costly judicial review within six weeks of its implementation. It would be very difficult to mount a legal argument against the Order without having full access to the figures, and by the time these figures are released it will be too late. All we know so far is that just 41% of the respondents to a consultation that was worded by the very people who were pushing for the introduction of restrictions supported the measures (these are the only figures that the council has released). One might assume that such a low level of support would mean they would at the very least make compromises with the busking community, such as the suggestion that these restrictions would only be applied after a certain time, or allowing busking that was not causing anti-social behaviour issues. But instead of this, they actually increased the area in which there would be a total ban on busking.

It is not just buskers who are adversely affected by PSPOs. They tend to focus on those who can least afford to defend themselves, such as the homeless.

As a co-director of the street entertainment advocacy group Keep Streets Live, I would like to see the back of PSPOs on the basis that they are all too often blunt tools used to criminalise the defenceless. However, this looks very unlikely to happen. As such, we are calling for their reform, to ensure that they are only ever used in instances where there is behaviour that is having a genuinely detrimental impact on the community. Our 4-point plan would ensure:

  • New PSPOs should be scrutinised independently to ensure they comply with Home Office guidance (a FOI request revealed that the Home Office keep no record of PSPOs, meaning that there is no oversight to their implementation)
  • Challenges/appeals against existing PSPOs should be free (they are currently too expensive for citizens) and those who have been fined as a result of them should be entitled to legal aid if they wish to appeal
  • Private companies should be barred from being contracted to issue fines
  • Financial incentives to individual officers for issuing fines should be banned

These four simple amendments would see a higher level of accountability, and a reasonable burden of proof put on to councils for introducing such laws. It would not impede them in restricting behaviour that is having a detrimental effect on the community.

We call on all opposition parties to adopt these guidelines in order to safeguard the rights of people who do not have the means to challenge oppressive legal restrictions to their daily lives.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham. He is a a co-director of Keep Streets Live

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  • Thanks for your article David

    I’ve followed your advocacy of this issue ever I read your article about your issues with busking during lockdown (I was very sympathetic and supportive of your stance, even if many commenters were most definitely not), and then your updates from the street music scene since then. I don’t see this ever reported in regular media outlets.

    From your advocacy group Keep Streets Live, how are you transforming your plan from aspirations to implementation?

    I personally think the issues your raise are very core liberal issues (yes also quite niche), and as I find as time goes by that I agree less and less with what Lib Dem positions and proposals (official and unofficial), reading your articles on this subject is very refeshing and reassuring

  • Thanks James.

    We’ve found it difficult to draw attention to these things – one of the issues is that when individual PSPOs are announced that aren’t reasonable, there’s a brief outcry, occasionally compromises are made, but then everyone moves on, and it doesn’t address the issues at the heart of the legislation.

    Tim Clement-Jones has been good and arguably the only constant voice in support of buskers among the political classes. He was a friend of KSL’s founder, the late Jonny Walker, but we’re still in contact with him. I agree that this should be a core issue of social liberalism.

    Keep Streets Live is a small, volunteer-run organisation so implementation is very tough – essentially we just need a politician with clout to pick up on this issue and run with it. We’re not affiliated with any party but I’m aware this website is read by leading politicians so anything like this that may prick the ears of people in power has to be worth a go!

  • Chris Bowser 16th Aug '22 - 3:23pm

    Whilst I am personally opposed to Buskers, Street Performers etc, I understand the necessity for these people to earn a living and to do some doing something they are happy with.
    I would rather Birmingham council focus on removing chuggers from the streets than musicians

  • Ruth Bright 16th Aug '22 - 6:10pm

    As usual David alerts us to such important issues.

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