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The end of street performances in Covent Garden?

Image from Covent Garden Street Performers Association archives

Culture

The end of street performances in Covent Garden?

On 4th December Westminster Council will vote on a licence which would effectively ban live performancespushing most performers out of their beloved home.

Anyone who has wandered through Covent Garden’s famous central London Piazza will be familiar with the sights and sounds of street performers who can always be found performing for the crowd, delighting tourists and regulars alike.

Street performing in the square has been a tradition for 100s of years, dating all the way back to 1662, when Samuel Pepys’ wrote in his diary about a marionette show featuring the character Punch (later to become Punch & Judy). More modern-day artists who cut their teeth as street performers in Covent Garden include Eddie (Suzy) Izzard, Alfred Molina, STOMP and Dynamo. Performers who begin in the hallowed square have gone on to perform in global extravaganzas including La Clique, La Soiree and Cirque Du Soleil.

Melvyn Altwarg and Peter Kolofsky, spokespeople for the CGSPA:

“The performers in Covent Garden are synonymous with the area and breathe life and artistic vibrancy into this special part of London, and the site is a breeding ground for talent who go on to wow audiences all over the world. For the past 40 years, the CGSPA has self-regulated it’s members to ensure they are well-behaved and safe, this has been extraordinarily successful, but Westminster Council are making what we do illegal.

“We urge counsellors to vote for Covent Garden to be exempted from the Westminster-wide licence and leave the Covent Garden street performers to their own self-regulation”.

Normally Christmas is an especially popular time for crowds of tourists and visitors watching street performers in a busy Covent Garden. But if plans by Westminster Council are to go ahead, from early next month Covent Garden performances as we currently know them, could be no more.

Covent Garden Street Performers Association Archive Photo

When Westminster Council introduced licensing for street performance in April 2021, the band of 30-or-so regular performers who are members of the Covent Garden Street Performers Association; made up of magicians, jugglers, clowns and other performing artists, found that the numerous restrictions listed within the licence would make it impossible to perform. These include the highly restrictive size of the pitch in the St Paul’s Church piazza  – the licence states that “performances must not be more than 5 metres in space (including the space used by the audience) which renders most current performances (juggling, acrobatics and other physical performances)  impossible.

The complete ban on any sound amplification in James Street will mean the much-loved magicians will no longer be able to amplify their voices, which will make it impossible for them to perform and a ban on dangerous props which would mean any performances that involve anything perceived to be dangerous   (even if they can in fact be proven to be totally safe) such as fire or knife juggling, bullwhips or beds of nails, would not be able to be performed.

So essentially if you’re not pushed out by one rule, you are pushed out by another states the Covent Garden Street Performers Association.

Back in 2021 the performers at Covent Garden made the decision to refuse the licence  – essentially having no option but to criminalise themselves when performing. Since then, the issue has remained a grey area, with the council largely leaving Covent Garden alone, but leaving performers in limbo – not knowing if the licence will one day be enforced.

Now, a vote has been scheduled for 4th December where the members of the voting committee will be given three options. They can either vote to discontinue the scheme, vary the scope of the scheme (i.e. limit it to fewer parts of London), or continue with the current scheme and prioritise resources such as enlist more staff and the help of the police to enforce the scheme.

Covent Garden Street Performers Association Archive Photo

If, as expected the council vote to approve new resources and powers to enforce the licence, most performers could be pushed out of their beloved home before Christmas. Today, members of the Covent Garden Street Performers Association (CGSPA) – which has overseen the area since 1980  – are making an impassioned plea for Westminster Council to reconsider the restrictions ahead of their planned meeting and vote.

CGSPA also wants to ensure that the council is aware that in Leicester Square where the licence has been imposed, the area has actually seen a significant increase in noise complaints – the one thing the licence was brought in to reduce – which the CGSPA believe is directly due to the way the licence is implemented – (see more information in ‘Supporting Details’ as to why the CGSPA believe this is happening).

An overwhelming 99% of stall holders, shopkeepers, cafes, and more have signed a petition to declare their support of the street performers and opposed the proposed licence regime plans. Staff from Covent Garden retailers including L’occitane, Whittard, Shake, Shack, Dior, Mac, Sketchers, Tiffany, Charlotte Tilbury, , Ralph Lauren, Kurt Geiger, Paul Smith, Holland & Barrett, Dr Martens and many more, have signed a CGSPA petition, supporting the rejection of these draconian proposals.

Recently Equity also issued a petition to urge the council to reconsider their position. Gareth Forest of Equity stated in the petition: “A vote for licensing will see the colour and vibrancy of magicians, musicians, jugglers, clowns, artists and players swept away and replaced by empty gentrified, sanitised high streets in Covent Garden. The reality is that most performers will be pushed out of the city centre as a result of licensing”.

The petition will be delivered to Westminster Council on 24th November and the CGSPA urges anyone who supports the cause to sign it before then.

Melvyn Altwarg and Peter Kolofsky – CGSPA statement:

“The licence is not fit for purpose as the past two years have demonstrated that the council have not been able to enforce it Since it was introduced, the scheme has cost local taxpayers upwards of £200,000 and yet the enforcement of the licence has, across the entirety of Westminster, resulted in one solitary conviction, the upshot of which was a £40 fine and a temporary performance ban. The licence scheme, once touted as a solution, has proven to be nothing more than an unsuccessful white elephant that only serves to criminalise innocent artists”.

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