The public gallery of Blackpool Town Hall’s main council chamber is packed. Standing room only. Sixty or so up there, more lining the council chamber. Others waiting for others to leave – some of them for meetings with bosses and funding chiefs to discuss their own futures – so they can get in.
“We should have brought our knitting,” says one charity worker, watching as the guillotine falls heavily upon frontline public services and, to come, allied community and charity groups.
Veteran trade unionist Mick Martin admits he’s never seen anything like it “since the old Poll Tax riots.”
Lots of anguished faces in the public gallery, folk from Streetlife, Bay Housing, The Ashley Foundation, Oasis nightshelter, CVS, Women’s Aid, a librarian, community activists, more.
Labour MP Gordon Marsden makes an appearance, with former Parliamentary colleague Joan Humble.
More are demonstrating outside. Ordinary people, rather than Labour warhorses or militant unionists; council workers fearful of losing their jobs, charities scared at the impact on jobs, and services, of funding being pulled, even kids, such as young Jack Arkwright, 10, upset at losing their local libraries.
There’s real anger and anxiety in this ‘inner city on the coast’, already so high up the multiple deprivation league it’s likely to get altitude, or attitude, sickness.
They need to hear something that will reassure them that, hard as it is going to be, things will get better. Instead they hear the politics of the playground, what passes for debate today, tit-for-tat Tories did this, Labour that, and so on.
Despairingly, the public begin to file out. I catch up with some outside. “It’s a waste of time,” says one woman, who faces redundancy. “Most of them aren’t under 65. What do they really know of life today?”
Labour’s Ivan Taylor says Britain’s been “in debt since William Pitt” (Younger or Elder?) while Tory (and council) leader Peter Callow launches into a litany of Labour’s failings and Gordon Brown’s shortcomings.
Politicians have long memories. Coun Peter Evans takes a potshot at Labour leader Coun Simon Blackburn’s alleged “anti-tourism” stance, by referring to his old job in Downham “where people just gather on a bridge to watch the ducks go by.”
When Coun Blackburn (who has posters of Che, Pacino, and Martin Luther King in his office) squares up to Coun Callow (who hasn’t) it’s like watching a street fighter take on a traditional political pugilist. Queensberry rules it ain’t. It’s about to get nasty.
Even immigration rears its head (from another quarter) amidst shouts of protest. And councillors’ expenses. But note we have three of the lowest paid chief council officers in the North West, according to Coun Maxine Callow, who accuses the opposition of “crocodile tears.”
The tears in the public gallery are real – after the vote.
Some, such as Jane Hugo, of Streetlife, are in despair. Others, at the CAB, are about to start redundancy consultations. Yet more are off to the JobCentre. Or to sign a protest petition in support of Surestart.
The two Liberal Democrats, one about to quit the council, offer the only decent heckle (other than those from the public gallery) of the day, ignore the national coalition, and side with the socialists. But it’s still 10 against the £27m budget cuts, and 24 for.
Some may play to the public gallery, but this is one public gallery which isn’t playing along. Not even when they hear the council has found £500k from reserves at the 11th hour to cushion the blow. News broke the night before the meeting. “That’s a lot of £1 coins to find behind the sofa,” quips Coun Blackburn.
It enables the council to offer £100k to Blackpool Young People’s Council to help them ‘prioritise’ but it’s a bitter pill to swallow when Blackpool Young People’s Service is about to lose £2m.
A further £50k goes to Vitaline, but one day centre for the elderly is to close, along with reductions in warden cover, care and repair funding and domiciliary care.
There’s £50k to help support council staff who lose their jobs and wish to start their own businesses – but enterprise and employment initiatives have just lost £99,500.
“Split £50k 750 ways,” says one worker who wants to start a social enterprise company. “No chance.”
Then Labour offer to throw a lifeline to Grange Park’s Boundary Library, through ward grants, and volunteers from Layton’s Queenspark residents’ association. There are 637 active members there, half of them kids, Coun Blackburn says.
So is that all right with Jack, I ask the youngest protester present? “It’s very nice of them and it might help, but what we kids really, really want is a proper library with a proper librarian. Please help us.”