Doncaster is trying to marginalise street performers – but such policies threaten its all-important sense of play

Doncaster. Image: Frees/Wikimedia Commons.

In January this year, a video of a 15-year-old musician busking on the streets of Doncaster was posted on YouTube. Alfie Sheard’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car went viral and led to him performing on the Ellen show in LA.

In his interview with Ellen, Alfie says that he loves busking because he likes to see people smile and that he invests the money he makes busking back into his music, taking the pressure of his mum. His dream is to come home one day and tell her she can stop working because he can now support her with his music.

If the highly controversial new powers sought by Doncaster Council had been in place when Alfie was busking, he would have been committing a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to £1000 – for “requesting money, donations or goods, including through placing of hats, clothing or containers”.

As Cohen and Greenwood describe in their History of Street Entertainment, street performers have been a near-ubiquitous feature of the everyday life of our towns and cities for centuries. Such performers have always, and rather unfairly, been seen as existing on the margins of polite, or even acceptable, society. During the Middle Ages, minstrels were thought of as "lecherous and irresponsible fly-by-nights”, and we retain today a sense that those who either make their living or their play in public places are somehow disreputable.

Doncaster Council’s proposals would give police and council officials the power to ban people from the town centre if they merely believed them to be likely to cause nuisance or annoyance. Such fear of unregulated public play has a long history in Britain. Historically, concerns about public noise and annoyances came to a head with the street music debates in parliament through 1863-64. These debates reflect two major fears that are still prominent today: the fear of foreigners on British streets, and middle-class annoyance at working-class play.

The fear of street performers is connected to the fear of the poor, the itinerant, and the homeless. Doncaster Council would make it a criminal offense to sleep rough with or without a tent. The council claim that such powers are designed to help vulnerable people engage with services. In fact, they will impose punitive fines and criminal records upon highly vulnerable people with a wide range of complex social needs.

Underlying these laws is a culture of fear that has infected the public and the council officials are responding to baseless fears in a thoughtless manner. The gutter press publishes a stream of scare stories that lead us to believe that our towns and cities have become violent hellholes.

In reality, Britain has seen a steady and dramatic decline in lawbreaking in recent decades. Since 1995, the number of crimes has more than halved, vehicle theft has dropped by 86 per cent, burglary by 71 per cent, violent crime by 66 per cent, and robberies by more 50 per cent. There has been an increase in some crimes in the last year, but those are mostly related to swathing cuts in public services not to street performers or the homeless.


Street performances have always used theatrical danger to draw a crowd. Fire breathing, escapology, tightrope walking, juggling knives, wobbling around on tall unicycles. This theatrical danger is inherently exciting even if it is mostly illusory. Councils like Doncaster, Chester, and Oxford who have sought to introduce ill-considered laws to control public play seem to make the mistake of confusing theatrical danger with real danger. They have, to some extent, fallen for the illusion of danger inherent in many forms of public play.

The preeminent play-theory scholar Brian Sutton-Smith always said that the least understood, yet most important, kind of play is rough-and-tumble play. Play that is often naughty, rude, risky, and annoying. Play that pushes us to take risks, to explore boundaries, and to come home with bumps and scrapes. In an essay reviewing a lifetime devoted to the study of play, he suggests that perhaps his whole career was driven by an attempt to convince his mum that the rough-and-tumble play he and his brothers indulged in was absolutely normal and good for them.

It is worth asking whether our towns and cities can ever be made completely safe without taking away their sense of play. When grown-ups go out to play in the city they aren’t always looking for healthy, clean-living, logical, respectable, sporty activities: they are sometimes looking to challenge themselves, to be surprised and enchanted by the rough edges of the city.

Cities are full of rough-and-tumble play. It is part of their attraction and their romance. To have a rich variety of play in cities we need to design for danger. We can have safe cities or we can have playable cities. We can’t have both.

Stuart Nolan is a research magician and will be speaking on a session on Who Can Play, at the Making the City Playable Conference on Thursday 19 October. 

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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