Public to decide the fate of Covent Garden's street performers

How the public will decide the fate of Covent Garden’s street performers: Thousands back campaign to save the entertainers, but concerns grow over crime levels as pickpockets target tourists in shopping district

  • In October 2023, there were 564 pickpocketing reports  in Covent Garden 
  • Officials are reviewing a licensing scheme which was introduced in 2021 

Members of the public will decide the future of busking in Covent Garden after Westminster City Council reviewed its current licensing scheme. 

The council’s licensing committee met on Monday night and will release information on the public consultation at a later stage.  

Buskers have been performing in Covent Garden since the 1660s, when they were first recorded in Samuel Pepys’ diary. 

However, that tradition is under threat amid complaints of anti-social behaviour and crime blighting the area, with 64 per cent of pick pocketing cases abandoned within days. 

Westminster City Council is asking the public for their views on the future of busking in areas such as Covent Garden, pictured

Officials said they have received complaints about excessive noise and congestion as a result of performances 

Westminster City Council said they receive more than 1,800 complaints a year about buskers in Covent Garden and Leicester Square – many of which for excessive noise. 

Also, the large crowds who gather to watch performances also attract criminals, with pickpocketing rife in the area. 

In October 2023 alone, there were 564 reports of ‘theft from the person’ in the Covent Garden area. Of those reports, 343 have been closed without a suspect being identified. 

READ MORE: Council plans crackdown on buskers 

The buskers insist their creativity brings life to the city and have received the support of 5,000 members of the public who signed a petition to oppose the planned changes.  

In a report to Westminster City Council’s licensing committee, officials wrote: ‘While the Council acknowledges the cultural enrichment these activities bring to the city’s vibrancy, certain locations experience adverse impacts. 

‘The excessive volume of daily loud or amplified performances disrupts residents and businesses, prompting complaints. 

‘Some areas due to their nature, design, and use, prove unsuitable for busking, causing pedestrian congestion and safety issues.’ 

Officials said Covent Garden and Leicester Square have been problematic with ‘non-compliance, illegal performances, and the associated impacts of noise and obstruction have been evident’. 

Westminster City Council said they introduced a licensing scheme in 2021 after light-touch regulation failed. 

The performers insist they should be able to regulate themselves rather than by the council, pictured, a performer in Covent Garden 

Officials complain that members of the Covent Garden Street Performers Association have refused to accept the licensing regime, which has led to continued problems with ‘obstruction and noise’. 

The Covent Garden Street Performer’s Association said the council’s meeting as ‘nominally positive’. 

A spokesperson said: ‘We had of course hoped that Westminster Council might make moves to exclude Covent Garden from the licence as we have been campaigning for, but the fact that they appear to, in essence, be kicking the issue down the road, is at least a temporary win for us. We live to fight another day.

‘Of more concern is fact that in a meeting specifically held to address the issues of street performing and busking, Kerry Simpkin, Head of Licensing, Place & Investment, who spoke at the meeting, seemed wholly uninformed about the issues at hand, which gives us significant cause for worry, as our livelihoods are in the hands of people who don’t know anything about the specifics of the situation.’

The CGSPA said the problematic areas are in Leicester Square and Oxford Street, rather than in Covent Garden. 

However, the CGSPA said none of its members has submitted to the council’s licensing regime. 

The spokesperson added: ‘There was little to no consideration in the meeting of the options to either exclude Covent Garden from the licence, or to remove the licence altogether. It was very clear that Westminster considers the licence here to stay and that by implication – as has been the case for the past two years – none of the current performers in Covent Garden will legally be allowed to perform. The Council very clearly want us gone.

‘We would ask once again that Westminster Council listen to us, listen to public opinion, and ultimately listen to reason, to exempt Covent Garden from the licencing scheme, so that we no longer have to criminalise ourselves every single time we perform.’

Councillor Aicha Less, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Communities and Public Protection, said:

‘The busking and street entertainment policy was introduced two years ago to preserve the tradition of live street entertainment in Westminster, which is hugely popular with visitors to the city, and to ensure busking and street entertainment operates in a safe and responsible way.

‘We want to strike a balance between supporting performers and addressing the issues of excessive noise, overcrowding, and inappropriate locations.

‘The council’s licensing committee met on December 4 to discuss options to tweak the existing policy. A ban on busking has never been proposed and never will be.’ 

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