I arrive half an hour late to the protest outside Hammersmith Town Hall after hot-footing it from Docklands. There’s a pretty big crowd here. I’d say there’s easily around a hundred, maybe more. It’s a very well-mannered protest. There are a quite a few children and young people, reminding one of the fact that these cuts will affect everyone – young and old. I can see local MP Andy Slaughter giving an interview to a radio journalist and Cllr Stephen Cowan is being interviewed by another journalist. I have a quick chat with one of the tenants of Palingswick House who mistakes me for a journalist. I tell him that I’m just a blogger and a resident. He tells me that there are actually 33 charities in Palingswick House. I’m surprised.
It’s about 7:45pm when they let us into the Town Hall. I go up some steps to the left hand side of the entrance. We’re ushered into the auditorium. There are minutes of the last cabinet meeting placed on every other chair. I guess we’re supposed share with our neighbour. The minutes talk predictably about “consultation”. It’s a funny word, because it often implies that the public have been consulted but, more often than not, the body that does the consulting has no intention of heeding the public’s advice. Strangely enough, I don’t recall being consulted on any of these proposals. According to the figures, few people want to see these community buildings closed. Just taking the Irish Cultural Centre for example, I can see that 79% are against and only 4% are in favour of ‘disposal’. The Council apparently received 497 responses. I also notice that Hammersmith Library has also been threatened with closure. This comes as news to me, because I thought it had been reprieved.
6 minutes to go till the start of the meeting. There’s no sign of The Dear Leader or Harry Phibbs. Some Tories have arrived: Botterill, Smith, Carlebatch, Binmore. Their Labour opposites are taking their seats. Then Greenhalgh and Phibbs arrive – though not together. The Dear Leader takes his seat and the lights go up. I saw the Bunteresque One on the Politics Show on Sunday doing his best impression of a brick wall while Cllr Cowan asked him questions. He looked uncomfortable and shifty. He looked like a man who was trying to hide something. He looked like a man who doesn’t take too kindly to questions or contradiction. He looked like a man who’d had too many big lunches. He looked sweaty.
“This is the largest cabinet meeting I’ve ever seen” declares the Leader. Is this supposed to be some kind of ice-breaker? It sounds so insincere. He tells us to turn our phones off. The woman journo behind me isn’t listening and is tapping text into her Blackberry. The well-suited male journo looks as though he writes for the Torygraph or one of the Rothermere papers. He’s not taking many notes. I’m scratching away like fury.
Presentations are invited from the groups threatened with eviction. The first up to speak is Gordon Smith of Shepherds Bush Village Hall. He speaks passionately in its defence. He talks of its value as a community resource and how it is fully accessible. Another speaks in defence of the Hall and raises a good point about its use as a polling station. She reminds the Tories of Harold MacMillan’s warning to Thatcher about “selling off the family silver”. She gets a standing ovation. Greenhalgh looks bored. Like he wants to get this over with and head across the road to The Salutation.
Hilda McCafferty of the Irish Cultural Centre reminds the cabinet that they’ve “heard these points before” and reminds them of the extension on the lease for the building on which they have performed a volte face. She also said how the ICC had had its own valuation conducted, while the Council had yet to conduct one of their own. What was taking them so long?
At this point, I must describe the acoustics of this hall: it’s large with a lot of dead space – the sound gets lost in the ceiling. The floor is bare, polished parquet; the kind that you always find in town halls. They’re great for dances and so on but as meeting places, they’re crap. The sound from the PA system feeds back quite a bit too. The microphones look as though they’ve been taken from the council chamber. Some of the Tories don’t realise that they’re either speaking away from these very directional mics or they’re speaking too softly. It’s often difficult to hear the names of those being called to defend their buildings.
A man got up to speak about the Sands End Centre, he spoke about how it was set up by the council in 1978 and how, in those days, they “knew the meaning of localism”. The “council” he said “was a mere custodian of this building”. The Leader then asked for questions from the floor. One made a point about the council’s hypocrisy, another wondered what sort of spaces they would be forced to relocate. One man reminded them of the contribution the Irish had made, not only to Hammersmith, but in the rest of the country. Andy Slaughter asked how much the Council would get from the sale of Palingswick House. He asked him to “stop misrepresenting the condition of the buildings”.
Cllr Cowan tries to pose his questions but the Leader seems tetchy and irritable. There’s a heated exchange between them. Greenhalgh stonewalls. These Tories have made up their minds; they’re going to sell these buildings whether we like it or not. It’s all in their body language and their attitude to this meeting.
Cllr Cowan finally gets to ask his questions without the Leader raising his voice at him. “Can you give us an audit of which services will be lost”? ” How are you going to make sure those services aren’t lost”? And “Why didn’t you tell people that SureStart would be cancelled”? Finally, Cowan asks him to delay the moves. There’s no answer. The Dear Leader asks the cabinet to make its points. Phibbs asks one woman from the Shepherds Bush Village Hall about timescales, there’s a brief exchange and then Phibbs says “this is not the ideal forum”. Er, come again? The audience are angry and upset at his shocking arrogance. Phibbs, you will recall, was once a leading member of the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980’s. I make a not-so sotto voce comment about “Hang Mandela” T-Shirts.
Greenhalgh says that “there’s no fire sale”. Cowan urges him to “work with the community”. Greenhalgh, “We inherited this deficit from blah, blah, blah”. Phibbs, “this meeting is getting noisy”. That’s the first time I’ve agreed with him. Then he throws wobbly “We’ll just have to end the meeting”! Cllr Cowan reminds Greenhalgh that he didn’t answer his questions. The audience are getting agitated, a slow handclap begins.
The Dear Leader announces a 5 minute break.
At that point I decide to leave. I’m tired and hungry. I say hello to Cllr Cowan on the way out.
I had Newsnight on in the background as I typed this. I heard that the Council had voted to sell off the buildings.
Now all I can think about is Toby Fucking Young.