On Thursday the 17th of February I went to the Guildhall in Cambridge to observe a full meeting of Cambridge City Council. On arrival I found the main doors to the building closed and locked. This isn’t usually the case when there is a full council meeting. There was no indication anything was going on and no signage. I was about to call someone and ask them to look online to see if I had the day or time wrong but as I was parking my bike I noticed some activity at a side entrance. I approached and found a bunch of men stood in the door much as you’d find at a dodgy night club; behind them were more men wearing fluorescent jackets with the word “security” on the back. This is being unusual for the Guildhall on the evening of a council meeting I asked if there was about to be a full council meeting. I was told “yes”, and one of the men asked me my name and picked up a list as if he was going to check to see if I was on it. I asked why he wanted my name and stated it was a public meeting; he then handed me a piece of paper which he said contained rules on behaviour in the council meeting and stood aside and let me in. I started to walk up the stairs to the public gallery and was barked at by one of the mob on the door saying: “take the lift”; I declined this offer which resulted in one of the individuals in a fluorescent jacket being dispatched to follow me up the stairs.
On arriving in the corridor outside the public gallery I saw two police officers, one of whom was PC Simon Railer, (read about my previous encounters with this officer here). I said hello but he ignored me. I entered the public gallery, briefly paused by the door, to decide where to sit, and was gruffly ordered to sit down by a member of council staff.
A number of those visiting the council on the evening were probably doing so for the first time; and this kind of welcome certainly wouldn’t make a very good impression in my view.
I had arrived as the council was being preached to by a chaplain of some description. The public gallery was fairly full; with about 40 people present. It has been fuller and on a couple of occasions the council has permitted overspill from the public gallery to sit behind the councillors in the chamber.
The meeting got underway with the mayor’s announcements; one of which was a report that she had, on behalf of the city given congratulations to Prince William on his engagement. This was met with sighs of derision from the gallery. The mayor then presented an award to one of the city’s ex-mayors who made an acceptance speech in which he talked with great enthusiasm about all the encounters with the Queen he had experienced as mayor, many invites to garden parties, her visit to Cambridge etc. A number of low-key heckles questioning if we lived in a democracy, and a joking: “Off with their heads” could be heard following all this rather overt royalism, but nothing exceptional.
The meeting got underway with a petition to save the Lion Yard toilets; amazingly this had 10,300 signatories. It was presented to the council by Gerri Bird, who the Lib Dems stressed had been a Labour candidate, implying the petition was motivated by party political point scoring.
Gerri Bird spoke about the petition, making arguments for keeping the toilets on the ground floor in their current location, making points such as the fact lifts aren’t reliable, the new toilets will be smaller and will take much longer for disabled people in particular to get to.
The mayor then picked up the large legal archive box containing the petition and ceremoniously handed it to the deputy mayor who ceremoniously placed it on his desk.
Leader of the council, Liberal Democrat Cllr Reid, responded saying the toilets were being moved, not closed, and claimed there was an agreement in principle from members of all parties in the council that the move should take place. Labour councillors protested, and Cllr Reid claimed they had voted for it. (Later Cllr Hart explained that they had voted to approve a scheme conditional on an acceptable new location for the toilets being identified). Cllr Reid stated an equalities impact assessment was being conducted and both the council and the centre management were sensitive to the public outcry at the proposals. Cllr Reid promised any closure would be deferred until the outcome of the impact assessment.
The public gallery applauded this announcement; the mayor was twitchy and responded to this applause by saying: “There is a limited time period of fifteen minutes for this slot and the more you applaud the less time there will be for councillors to discuss the petition”. The mayor appeared to be trying to turn the meeting in to a pantomime and the public gallery all together made an “ooooh” sound in shock at being so harshly chastised for a little clapping of an announcement which will be clearly welcomed by many in Cambridge. (While not all signatures will be from Cambridge, the population of Cambridge is about 100,000 so the size of the petition is about 10% of the population, this is something very many people care about).
The mayor outlined the very restrictive rules for the fifteen minute session on the petition; councillors could not debate, they could only ask Gerri Bird questions. This prompted some very creative phrasing of political points formulating them into questions. Councillors called the proposed closure a travesty, others asked about alternative ground floor toilets in the area, and were told M&S and McDonalds had some but they were only available to their customers. Liberal Democrats asked why Gerri Bird was petitioning them and not the centre management; she explained she’d been to see the centre management and they’d put her onto the council as they’re the landlord (and the toilets are owned and run by the council!).
After the questions Cllr McGovern, the executive councillor who took the decision to close the toilets was given the chance to respond. As he explained the financial motivation for the change a paper aeroplane was thrown from the public gallery and someone heckled asking if he was putting profit before the interests of the people of Cambridge.
In response to this relatively minor interruption the mayor ordered the removal of the heckler (who had not been warned individually; and the whole gallery had only been warned about too much clapping). Before the council staff had a chance to react, and before the heckler had been given any chance to leave the mayor, unprompted by any further disruption, suddenly and inexplicably ordered the removal of the whole front row of the public gallery. This was odd as the heckler was as far as I could tell not in the front row.
This prompted many protestors in the gallery to throw paper planes down into the chamber and to begin chanting: “No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts”. The mayor at this point ordered the meeting suspended and I began filming. (On my film you can see the Sergeant at Mace swoop in and scoop up the council’s mace and take it away). Council staff and those in the fluorescent security jackets then ordered people out of the gallery.
Members of the public, who included a number of people who had come specifically to see the response to the petition, some regular observers of council meetings, local party staff (I think) and at least one prospective candidate in the upcoming local elections were among those removed.
Council officers gave assurances that those who were not causing any disruption would be let back in; a number of people only left the gallery having been made that promise.
Two individuals were arrested and handcuffed by police in the corridor behind the public gallery and led away. One was told he was arrested: on suspicion that he might commit a public order offence, this understandably annoyed the individual concerned who questioned how he could be arrested for something he hadn’t done yet.
Under threat of arrest for non-compliance everyone was then ordered out of the council building by the police and council staff. It appeared that many people had been required to leave bags, coats etc. by the door downstairs. As we had been promised we would be let back in very quickly some didn’t pick up their belongings on the way out (others couldn’t as they were being manhandled by police, and/or were in handcuffs).
One individual was arrested on the street outside. The arresting officer (the baldish officer) told him he would arrest him, take some details, then de-arrest him. I watched this bizarre charade take place. A perfectly calm and compliant individual was arrested, handcuffed, spoken to, notes taken, then de-arrested and un-handcuffed.
Meanwhile notorious PC 1555 Steve Hinks was antagonising one of the protestors; winding him up to the point where supposedly he swore giving PC Hinks grounds to arrest him.
The police then sent more officers; a van turned up along with a motorcycle one of those who had been arrested was bundled into the van by PC Hinks who accompanied him in the van.
In total I believe there were seven arrests and six de-arrests.
A pair of PCSOs also turned up. All those ejected from the public gallery were then left on the street; most waited for quite some time expecting to be allowed back in. Cllr Julie Smith emerged after some time, reporting the councillors had not at that point re-started their meeting. (The Cambridge-News who had a reporter inside the chamber reported the meeting was suspended for 40 minutes). When Cllr Smith returned from a trip to the shops I half jokingly asked if she would invite me back in (Cllrs’ invited guests were still inside, and Lib Dem Cllr Sarah Brown was tweeting suggesting those expelled who wanted to continue to observe should seek such invites.)
Eventually the council’s side door was closed, the guildhall became a fortress, two police officers could be seen inside the doors guarding them; and a police officer and two PCSOs were outside. The PCSOs patrolled the perimeter of the guildhall for over half an hour while inside the council meeting continued with an empty public gallery. The public were not able to hear Executive Cllr McGovern’s response to the 10,300 person petition; or the points made by public speakers and the council’s response to them.
Bored; I phoned the Cambridge-News and told the news editor on duty there what was going on.
Dan Ratcliffe tweeted:
Promised by Police & @CamCitCo officers we would be allowed back after disruption.Now that we’re out they’re denying it.
Many people started to walk away, and eventually one individual, the member of council staff who had promised those ejected they could return came out to say no-one would be allowed back in. When asked if the meeting was underway again in secret session he said it had restarted and that the press and invited guests were allowed inside. I asked if I could be considered press; he said the council held a list of accredited press and only those on their list would be allowed in. (I don’t believe the council has any such list, and am not aware of any such policy)
During the period the doors were closed a number of people arrived hoping to observe elements of the council meeting.
A couple of students were trying to get their bags back from inside, but the police and security guards who could be seen inside the doors refused to open them. The PCSOs weren’t prepared to help and try and reason with their colleagues inside the doors, or at least help contact them via their radios to explain the purpose of the knocking and ringing of the bell.
After a long delay, accompanied by a large police, security and council officer presence the public petitioners and public questioners were escorted from the building via the side door.
I spoke to the petitioners about what had happened; about their campaign and about what I’d missed inside. They told me the council staff had been very worried about getting them out and what they might face when they opened the doors; they warned them they might have cower back inside!
The member of council staff who had told many people they would be allowed back in was standing in the doorway after I had spoken to the petitioners; so I returned to him and asked him who he was. He identified himself as the council’s building manager. While talking to him I spotted the council’s Chief Executive and Head of Finance just inside the side-door. I told the Chief Executive that the building manager had told those ejected that she had made the decision to clear the whole public gallery and not let anyone back in. I asked if that was correct. She denied this and stated the decision had been made by the mayor. I also explained how many of us had been lied to by her officer who assured us we’d be allowed back in.
A few minutes later the Chief Executive came onto the street and invited me back into the public gallery. I asked why she was doing this, if she had accepted my request to be considered as press? She said she had decided to allow those who were waiting on the street back in. At this point it was almost two hours after ejection and I was the only person left on the street (the doors had been closed and there’d been no sign of movement for quite a while). I was escorted back up to the public gallery which was unlocked for me, another member of the public joined me a few moments later and the council’s building manager watched closely over us. The meeting was in recess for the councillors to have their dinner so I asked if I could go into the corridor to make a phone call, not without being accompanied, came the reply. By now it was gone 20:30 and the meeting had started at 18.00; I asked when the meeting was due to re-start but no-one knew.
Labour Leader Lewis Herbert called up to the public gallery to ask if the doors were open again. I said yes, as I’d been told they were.
Shortly after that I was told by the building manager that the doors had been closed again and only the two of us had been allowed back in. I shouted this correction back down to Cllr Herbert when he re-entered.
Action was clearly taken as Dan Ratcliffe and others managed to join us in the public gallery before the meeting reconvened.
As councillors returned to the chamber Liberal Democrat Executive member Cllr Blair turned to Labour Leader Lewis Herbert and stated that many of the disruptive protestors were his party colleagues. Cllr Herbert was appalled by this, denied it, and challenged Cllr Blair to make that allegation again in a public forum where it could be robustly refuted.
The meeting eventually re-started at 20:55. I was standing up as the Sergant at Mace processed in with the mayor and deputy mayor and the officer now known to be the building manager ordered me to sit down. I expressed my surprise as this is the bit where sometimes the public gallery stand up along with the councillors as the mayor walks in. (Recently in a Cambridge Court someone was sent to the cells for contempt for not standing for the entry of a magistrate; I didn’t want to be thrown out the gallery again!)
Bizarrely the meeting re-started with council leader Liberal Democrat Cllr Reid congratulating the mayor on the way she had handled the disruption. The mayor welcomed the members of the public back to the public gallery and councillors applauded us (presumably for our perseverance standing around for almost two hours!)
Two staff were monitoring the four of us in the gallery; for the remainder of the meeting. When someone wanted to leave the building or go to the toilet, they were accompanied.
During the debate that followed Green Cllr Adam Pogonowski expressed his disappointment that more of those who wanted to watch the budget debate had not been allowed to, and only the “cherry picked” members of the public had been allowed back in.
Cllr Herbert stated that he had never, in his long decades of service in local government (I’m not sure he phrased it quite like that) experienced a whole public gallery being cleared in the way the Liberal Democrat mayor Stuart had ordered that evening. He questioned the council’s commitment to openness (this was during the debate on the filming protocol where he also drew attention to the better quality footage it was possible to obtain under the County Council’s relatively unrestricted filming rules compared to the limitations imposed by the Lib Dems running the city council).
In my view the police, mayor, council officers and security staff were spoiling for a fight; they were determined to have a mass ejection from the gallery whatever happened, or at least on the very slightest provocation. The building manager appeared to agree with me on this, as he escorted me out after the meeting he stated that the council has plans for situations like this and this plan was simply put into action.
As I understand it the City Council filming protocol applies when meetings are in session; I only started filming once the meeting had been suspended.