Extinction Rebellion protester abseils into city council budget meeting
- Credit: Archant
It was an eventful night for Cambridge City Council when its meeting was disrupted by a protest.
Extinction Rebellion protesters halted a Cambridge City Council budget-setting meeting before staging an all-night "occupation" in the public chamber on Thursday.
Chaotic scenes unfolded with members of Extinction Rebellion Cambridge and their youth arm shouting, singing, dancing and with one scaling over the side of a public balcony to hang suspended above the council chamber.
Police were called, but communicating with the protesters proved difficult when they declared they had no designated leader, and the person suspended from the balcony was wearing headphones and unable to hear - or was at least ignoring - the commotion.
Protester Tilly Porter, 20, a third year philosophy student of King's College Cambridge, outlined a number of the group's demands centring around taking quicker and more impactful action to address the "climate emergency".
The main point behind Thursday's stunt (February 13) was to call on Cambridge City Council to hold a citizens' assembly to inform and make policy to address climate change.
The city council has already offered to hold a citizens' assembly, but the protesters disagree with the terms. They want to see the council handing over powers of decision-making, with a jury-style demographically representative group of citizens being selected by a sortition process and empowered to make "real change".
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The city council offered a voluntary citizens' assembly, whereas the protesters want a demographic sample invited, with an option to opt out.
The city council says it is listening to the concerns and is attempting to engage, but has ruled out handing over any powers. Councils have statutory obligations - powers granted by government - so the decision to hand over to another authority is not necessarily within its gift.
The dramatic protest is set to be followed by a 24/7, week-long protest closing part of Trumpington Road and the Fen Causeway, starting Sunday (February 16). This folllows a number of protests held around the city in recent months.
Extinction Rebellion Cambridge is also calling on the University of Cambridge to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and for the county council to shift away from a transport system reliant on fossil fuels.
Speaking from the chamber after the council decided to end efforts to restart its budget meeting on Thursday, Ms Porter said: "I think we have made it clear that we are not going to go away because they ask us to nicely or because they threaten us with the police. We will stand our ground and we will be here and we will have our week-long roadblock and if they don't give in to our week-long road block we will continue to escalate from there. This isn't the end this is the beginning until they agree to do something real to address the climate emergency".
Cambridge City Council had been due to agree its budget for the upcoming financial year, 2020/21 at the meeting. Protesters arrived and took up a position in the middle of the chamber. Members of the public are supposed to sit in the public gallery, but the council said the protesters could remain at the centre of proceedings as long as they did not disturb the meeting.
The protesters were quiet through the first debates on petitions and then through the public questions. Despite not requesting to speak in advance, which is the normal procedure, the council said the protesters could address the chamber.
Ms Porter began an address, accusing the councillors of failing to act, and saying if they did not have the powers required then they should join the protest. She then stepped onto a table in the middle of the chamber and led the 10-strong group in chants and songs. The mayor of the meeting, Cllr Gerri Bird, shouted for order but to no avail.Meanwhile, a protester had scaled over the side of the raised public gallery and hung suspended above the chamber.
At that point the meeting came to a chaotic end. There was an extended period of confusion, with the police arriving and councillors left to wander around in dismay - many of them quite annoyed, but at least one looking positively thrilled by the excitement, and one walking out in a huff, telling the local democracy reporting service it was a "waste of everybody's time".
The council needs to pass its budget by the end of the month. A makeshift shadow council chamber was assembled in another room behind locked doors, but it was quickly determined no official business could be carried out - council meetings must go through a special process to convene without the public present - and so it could not be held without opening the room up to everyone, protesters included. Legal advice was sought, but the confusion was brought to an end when the council said that police had advised they call it a day.
Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Gerri Bird said: "I was quite upset really because I gave them the opportunity to have their say and they disrupted the whole meeting".
She said she had never seen anything like it in her years as a councillor. "We had big demonstrations when the bedroom tax was in a few years ago but not like this," she said.
She described it as "shocking when you have a special meeting and the budget has to be decided, and councillors have all been to work today and then come for their evening meeting, but there was nothing else we could do we had to adjourn it."
Leader of the council, Labour's Lewis Herbert, said in a statement: "Councillors respect the right of people to protest peacefully, and agree with them that the Climate Emergency demands urgent action. But we regret that their actions halted our Council meeting tonight, the citizens' assembly for Cambridge, immediately after we listened to their views and were about to respond.
"Their actions also delayed the Council agreeing our 2020 plans to tackle the climate emergency and cut carbon emissions, including Peoples' Assemblies to involve residents and businesses in action to cut their emissions. If Extinction Rebellion want to mobilise Cambridge, they need to think what will best persuade local residents to act and support radical change, and consider that carefully in deciding their actions over the next week."
The council said the proposed budget contained money to engage residents on the issue of climate change, including money to hold "people's assemblies", and an extra £2.5 million to insulate council housing.
The council said it has cut its carbon emissions by 25 per cent in the last five years.