I met a Stasi officer over 40 years ago, long before the Berlin Wall came down, and during an amicable conversation he remarked ‘Of course there’s free speech in your country; no one cares what you say.’
Last week, courtesy of ScotBuzz, I found out, rather to my surprise, that people did care what I said. I’d written an article about how we were being driven mad by unbearably noisy, amplified buskers outside our home in Edinburgh’s city centre.
The problem had become so bad and so relentless last summer (and not just during the Festival) that my wife and I decided we’d have to move. But I wasn’t prepared to be driven out of our home, where we’d lived happily for nearly 30 years, without a fight.
I began by lobbying my local councillors and community groups and found I had their wholehearted support. This had been an ongoing problem for years. Why then, I wondered, was the council not listening to all of these complaints? Was the Stasi officer right?
So I wrote an article in ScotBuzz to explain my anger and frustration. The article got picked up by the Herald and the Evening News, whose editorial supported my plea that something had to be done about this growing nuisance to workers and residents in the city centre.
Then I got invited to air my views on BBC Radio Scotland. I was joined on the programme by two buskers who, to my surprise and delight, supported my views.
They said that they were fed up with the way Edinburgh had become a magnet for out-of-town buskers, who set up their huge amplifiers in the best spots and refused to budge.
They said they always moved on if ever they got a complaint. But these new buskers were of a different breed and didn’t obey any of the informal codes, until the police eventually arrived to move them on. They then set up somewhere else or returned to the same spot when the police had gone.
The next guest on the programme was Councillor Gavin Barrie, the chair of Edinburgh’s licensing committee. He said he was in communication with me, which was half true because I was in communication with him, though he hadn’t yet replied to me, and missed a meeting arranged between him, myself and Councillor Rankin.
I’d been in touch with Councillor Barrie because I think the only way to really solve this problem is to licence busking and introduce strict codes of practice, as has been done successfully in Dublin and Camden.
Councillor Barrie indicted that he was a bit surprised to be talking about this issue because he’d heard no complaints about busking. He might not have personally (his ward is Inverleith) but the council he serves most certainly has.
When I asked to present my case to the Old Town Community Association, Bill Cowan, its long serving and long suffering chairman, told me that the problem of busking was always on their agenda.
And it’s been a major concern of Grass, the Grassmarket’s Residents’ Association since it was first formed.
Has the council not been listening to the complaints of their community? Or have they, as the Stasi officer more ominously implied, simply decided not to hear?
Their policy of turning the whole city centre into a vast performance space regardless of the wishes of residents and workers alike suggests that the latter is the case – another sorry instance of the council applying mushroom management to its community, keeping them in the dark and pouring shit on them?
Councillor Barrie, on the radio, went on to say that the council couldn’t licence buskers because Scots law doesn’t allow them to. The Scottish Executive’s Noise Management Guide for local authorities (2006), to my mind, makes it clear that they can.
But if there is a flaw in Scots law it needs to be changed, for the law exists for people, not the other way round. And local councillors, if necessary with members of parliament, have powers to ensure that it does.
Councillor Barrie has agreed to see me about this issue next week,but warned me that he will be guided by his officers.
Guided, rightly, but not, I hope, led. If he is then the Stasi officer was right. No one in authority cares what you say, and democracy in Edinburgh is a sham.