Last night's meeting of Full Council was unlike any other I have been to in nine years as a councillor.
First, the final result of the night: the council's budget - including massive cuts to older people services, parks and youth services, to name just a few - was approved. I voted for three of the five Lib Dem amendments, which would have prevented some of the cuts taking place, but none of those amendments passed. On the overall budget, I voted to reject the entire package.
The meeting itself was webcast live as usual and you will be able to watch the whole thing again soon if you want (including my contribution to the debate), when it is archived here.
But there was chaos before the meeting, with hundreds of protesters at the civic centre in Wood Green, which turned into some ugly scenes. The Ham&High have a report here and there are photos on various websites of the protest - the two here are one that I took on my phone at around 7.15 (the meeting was due to start at 7.30) near the entrance to the council chamber and a later photo of the smashed glass door. There was also at least one other door smashed, at the entrance to the civic centre and reports of at least one council worker being pushed to the ground.
When I arrived for the meeting a little after 7pm, the civic centre was already full of protesters chanting "Who's town hall? Our town hall" and pushing towards the council chamber. I'd like to say up front that there were lots of peaceful protesters there, including children. Might also be useful to add that there is a large public gallery above the council chamber and only limited space on the lower level for members of the public. There are usually members of the public in both the gallery and the chamber itself (usually if they are making a formal deputation) and indeed at the last meeting the gallery was full with sometimes noisy protesters.
But many there had getting into the council chamber as their main aim and some broke through a police line to occupy the room. Not 100 as I've seen mentioned on one website, more like 10 or 20 before the police stopped more entering. At this stage I had also passed into the chamber, to make sure I was aware of what was going on. As an independent councillor now, I sat in with the discussions with the two party leaders, police and chief executive as the best way to handle the situation was discussed.
An attempt was then made to convene the meeting in the council's canteen, which was far from ideal - not least as the meeting wouldn't have been able to be webcast, effectively leaving no record of the debate and clearly less transparency in the decision making process. In any event, some protesters followed to the canteen, the fire alarm went off and the police evacuated the building. Councillors, journalists and some members of the public then waited outside the council building for a fair while until the police cleared us to re-enter.
We saw two people being taken out of the building and to police vans, I'm not sure if there were any other arrests at this stage or exactly what these people were taken away for. Once we were able to re-enter the building we finally went into the now cleared civic centre and the meeting began around 9pm, an hour and a half later than scheduled.
The unfortunate result of this was that public access to the meeting was limited to those making deputations (i.e. those who had indicated previously they wanted to speak to the council about the cuts), local journalists and of course the website. I feel sorry for the vast majority of protesters who wanted to be in the public gallery and make their feelings heard peacefully. It's not clear how many of the protesters were local residents - I expect the vast majority - but there were definitely people there who were not from Haringey and presumably had come for political reasons or to make trouble.
I spoke to a couple of the protesters prior to entering the chamber the first time. Clearly there was plenty of anger at the cuts - and rightly so - with mixed approaches... some clearly antagonistic towards the police, some with strong anarchist beliefs and also plenty who were just there to make their voices heard. I could put in some anecdotes of conversations I had, but this post is long enough already.
There were powerful deputations from three groups, all of whom spoke exceptionally well and passionately. The key points I made were that I strongly opposed the scale of cuts forced on Haringey by central government - as I do not think it is necessary or fair. For instance, I believe that to impose these cuts without first considering raising higher rate tax levels is wrong.
Effectively blackmailing Haringey over council tax levels is also wrong - council tax is already high here and no one wants to see it higher, but how does this blackmail fit with the government's localism agenda to give councils more responsibility and bring power closer to the people?
Leaving aside the cuts imposed by central government - and I did say last night that I disagreed with one of the deputations calling for no budget to be set in protest - I don't feel that the Labour council has mitigated against the cuts in their budget as well as it could have. I know that the speed of the cuts has been a real challenge, but just one example - while delivering Haringey People (the council's magazine) costs £234,000 a year and telling people what you are doing is a good thing, if spending that money means closing services and actually not doing things, then it is at best counter-productive.
So, with the meeting finishing at 11.30pm, the budget was passed and service provision is going to be cut drastically. It was certainly my saddest day as a Haringey councillor. Many people are now likely to lose their jobs - as well as voting against the budget I did speak out against any reduction in spending on union officials at this time, as taking away the support that people will undoubtedly need would be wrong.
There was plenty of the blame game going on last night, but the truth is that both sides have to accept some responsibility. We all know that in the real world we can't all have everything we want all the time, but some of these cuts were avoidable and that is the saddest part.