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. 

 
 
 
 

Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.


On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.