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Circus industry body to seek cultural minority status for showmen in UK

Showmen working in British circuses are exploring a bid to be formally recognised as a cultural minority, in order to preserve their way of life and protect rights they believe are being “chipped away”.

The Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain discussed the move at a meeting last month, and confirmed that it is working with experts to investigate whether the circus and fairground community could qualify as a cultural minority.

This is different from a recognised ethnic minority, and can be safeguarded by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage if it qualifies on several factors such as skills, language and history.

The ACP said that while people working in travelling entertainment in the UK are allowed certain exemptions and rights, achieving official recognition would afford them minority protection in a more formal manner.

These rights include special allowances for flyposting, which is ordinarily illegal, as well as certain exemptions in the Caravan Sites Act.

At present, circus vehicles are exempt from central London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone. Showmen have not been subject to air-pollution charges in the capital since low emissions zones were introduced in 2008, on the basis that despite running large vehicles that emit high amounts of pollution, they are often only moved once a week and regularly travel fewer than 10 miles at a time.

The ACP’s chairman, Zippos Circus founder Martin Burton, told The Stage that he feels rights such as these are being eroded, but that they could be protected if the circus community were granted minority status.

He said circuses benefited from “many small exemptions” to facilitate their day-to-day operation, but that he feared established policies were being “chipped away at” by government and local authorities.

Referring to the low emissions zone exemption, he said: “I’m not against changing with the times, but we are quite a small industry and we are often overlooked by the lawmakers. If we can establish ourselves as a group with a unique cultural heritage, we’ll never be overlooked and they will have to include us in their consultations.

“It does not mean they will take notice, but at least it means they can’t forget we exist.”

Burton said it may take between two and three years before they could be recognised by UNESCO, but said the work being done would benefit the long-term future of the circus community.

“It’s very easy to get too busy with tomorrow’s problems to look forward to the future by 10 years, but this is very much [an attempt to] look to the future and try and safeguard what we do,” he said.

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