Friday, 8 February 2013

Think locally, act noisily

Well that, unlike a Steven Poliakoff television series, was interesting.  A couple of nights ago I found myself at a council meeting for the first time. For why?  Well, a public petition against the library closures here in Newcastle had gathered over 2, 500 signatures thereby automatically triggering a debate in the chamber.  Now as a signatory of that and specific library petitions and as someone who, as my facebook friends are glumly aware, is keen on keeping libraries open, I thought I might attend.

It turned out I was not alone.

Now, it has often been pointed out that Newcastle Civic Centre bears a certain resemblance to a James Bond Villain Lair from the ‘60s

and I will not argue with that.  However, while James Bond Villain Lairs always seem to have plenty of space for minions, tanks of piranhas, rockets and, on one occasion, two nuclear submarines, the Newcastle Council Chamber has a surprisingly small public gallery.  Say fitting about fifty to sixty people. 

This turned out to be awkward as rather more turned up.  Say about one hundred.*

*And before anyone starts saying ‘that’s not very many’, may I point out that this was at 6 o’clock on a bitterly cold February evening and was also more than the original architects had ever planned for

Well, by virtue of being near the front, I got in but about forty to fifty people were left in the stairwell.  I offered to stand leaning against the wall but was firmly told by an official that I could not.  I asked why but answer came there none.  It was also apparent that there were empty seats at the back of the chamber, on the same level as the councillors.  At first we were told that they were for the disabled only until it was pointed out that there were abled people sitting there as well.  We were then told that it was a Health & Safety issue which does rather raise the question that if there is a strict H&S limit on the number of people allowed on the chamber floor, why has seating been provided for an unsafe number?  Mayhaps the council decides its postings by dint of musical chairs and so need a few maneuverable seats for the purpose?  I would not like to ask.

So it was, by the time the first of the public petitions were due to be debated, many of the people who wanted to hear could not get in.  One chap voiced his objections strongly, pointing out that there were forty people who couldn’t get in.  The Mayor, who was chairing the meeting, told him to be quiet.  He objected again and was again told to be quiet.  Now other members of the public began to shout queries about why couldn’t people use the chairs downstairs and despite being the Mayor telling us very firmly that this was not acceptable, the shouts continued.

So she ordered that the public gallery be cleared.

Nothing happened.

So she ordered it again.  Again, no one moved.  The couple of officials who were on the scene looked unhappy and I found myself trying to remember passive resistance techniques.  Sadly my dreams of being the new Rosa Parks were dashed when the Mayor then announced that the meeting was adjourned.

Then I booed.

I booed the Lord Mayor of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne.

For someone brought up on Trumpton, I’m still having difficulty processing this. 

In my defence though, I doubt the Mayor of Trumpton would have handled the meeting with such maladroitness.

Anyway, after about ten minutes, the meeting was opened again with a few people allowed to sit in the mysteriously unnecessary chairs on the chamber floor.  The Mayor gave us in the gallery a breathtakingly patronising and condescending ticking off for our appalling behaviour earlier.  We were naughty naughty members of the public and she was not going to put up with our shenanigans.  If I hadn’t still been in middle class culture shock for the boo, I’d have been tempted to make one of those sarcastic ‘whooo’ noises that teenagers do.  The chap who started it all off continued shouting that there were still people who could not get in and why could we not move to the banqueting hall which, apparently, has plenty of space.  He was told to shut up, then ignored and was finally persuaded away by an official.

Finally we got to the public petitions, the reason for the debate, the reason why the debate was happening and why so many people had turned up.

There were (and I can’t get hold of any official details of the meeting so forgive me if I’ve got this wrong) five of them.  Now, each one had to get a minimum of 2, 500 signatures to spark the debate.  So, that means an absolute minimum of  12, 500 signatures.  Even if you allow for a massive amount of duplicate signatures and casual signatures (‘yeah sure mate I’ll sign’) that is a lot of people.  Did it not occur to anyone that a fair number of those signatories might turn up for the debate?  By the reaction of the Mayor and councillors, apparently not.

Anyway, each petition was presented and debated.

It’s all the government’s fault.

That was all we got from the Labour councillors who spoke.  Well, apart from a severe finger-wagging from one councillor,* who seemed to be in charge of setting the budget, at those of us who signed the libraries petition for allegedly not reading it properly.  The implication seemed to be that we were the hopelessly naïve dupes of someone or other.  Way to ensure my vote Councillor!

*as stated I can’t get official details of the meeting and I don’t want to get her name wrong so I won’t give what I heard it as

I don’t know if council leader Nick Forbes, the T Dan Smith de nos jours, was present.  If he was, he didn’t speak.  I have read several interviews with him where he bemoans that his hands are tied, that he hates what he has to do but it is all because of the massive and disproportionate cut in the central government grant and until that meeting, I had a fair amount of sympathy for that position.

Not now.  While it would be unfair to say that the labour councillors present were revelling in the cuts, it is fair and accurate to say that they showed not one jot of regret or unhappiness at what they are planning.  At no point did anyone say anything along the lines of ‘we hate having to do this, but our hands are tied’, instead fingers were pointed at the opposition councillors, at the government, at us who had signed the petitions, but never at themselves.  I had not thought that my contempt for the Labour Party could go any lower after the invasion of Iraq, but the Newcastle Labour Party managed it.  Those who acknowledged the presence of the public at all did so tetchily or fearfully.  The rest kept their backs firmly against us.  I do not know what they believe their role to be, but it certainly does not seem to involve fighting for the interests of the people of Newcastle.  This city is under a second appalling attack by a foul Tory-led administration, and they are rolling over and letting it happen.

They may want to be seen as martyrs but they in fact collaborators.

And finally, because this is by far the longest blog I’ve ever written (I am happy to go into more details of what was said etc, ask in the comments if you're interested, I made notes), always remember this catechism:

We could afford the Olympics: we can afford libraries and respite homes
We could afford the Royal Jubilee: we can afford respite homes and libraries
We could afford a Royal Wedding and we can afford a Royal Christening: we can afford respite homes and libraries
We can afford Trident: we can afford libraries and respite homes
We can afford to become militarily involved in Mali: we can afford libraries and respite homes

                                                 and all together now

We can afford a tax cut for top earners: we can most certainly afford respite homes and libraries!

This is not an economic issue, it is a political one.


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