The busker’s voice is one of the most prominent and defining sounds of Oxford’s centre; their melodies have wafted down Cornmarket’s side roads and become engrained within its stone-walls. But this music is not simply a characteristic of the city, it is an intrinsic part of the musicians that produce it. This was made all too clear on Thursday afternoon last week, when a troupe of Oxford buskers, led by guitarist Jonny Walker, staged a musical protest against the city council’s proposals to make their life’s work a potential “criminal offence”.
According to the Oxford City Council’s Code of Practice, musicians should no longer be able to use a space for more than one hour, should not sell any merchandise or request money for their work, must not busk within 50metres of each other but should “Smile, enjoy yourself and entertain others” despite this. Given the absurdity of certain guidelines, it is no wonder that buskers from around the city gathered to express their disappointment in the council’s unwillingness to work with, rather than against, the music of the streets.
Many people affected have commented on the recent questionable use of the authorities’ time, focusing on creating new types of ‘criminals’ and new fineable activities, at the expense of focusing on the prosecution of current wrongdoers. Not only busking, but sleeping rough, pavement art and even feeding pigeons have all at one point been considered under the Public Space Protection Order as causers of disturbance or discomfort for the public. Other UK cities have also secured a buskers code of conduct; however the criteria for intervention is specific to case – only in instances of legitimate public harassment and complaint will action be taken against an individual.
In Oxford, the laws will make it much easier to be ‘non-compliant’, leading to an unnecessarily large amount of buskers being robbed of what could be their only hope for making a living, being fined sums that are often not immediately available to them. This is not just a question of money, however; for those people relying on the safety and comfort of their regular ‘busking environment’, redefining the guidelines could mean forcing them into nomadism, exacerbating their already-too-strong sense of having no home. Although the proposals to criminalise sleeping rough have recently been withdrawn, buskers would still be officially prevented from “ Positioning themselves in such a way that could be deemed begging, e.g. sitting on or wrapped in a sleeping bag or blanket”, under the new code.
Implementation of these new rules has stemmed from an objection to “unsafe and unfair” practices of buskers in Oxford, not specified by the council. When asked whether she would reconsider the policy, and asked to clarify the reasoning behind the code’s initiation, Labour Councillor Dee Sinclair claimed to the police that she was being ‘harassed’, and refused to further negotiate on the issue. What seems most frustrating is the vague attitude adopted by the authorities in their responses, rebuffing any proposal to collaborate with the Musicians’ Union or the Keep Streets Live campaign.
The greatest fear expressed by these associations is of the potential deterioration of Oxford’s cultural identity as an artistically vibrant and embracive centre and the stigmatisation of an activity from which the council suggests the public need ‘protection’ which is meant in fact for their enjoyment.