Dan Mansfield Reports From The Council Chamber

PUBLISHED: 13:44 24 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:13 04 May 2010

Council Chamber

Council Chamber

A PALPABLE sense of anxiety filled the council chamber on Tuesday evening as councillors, officers and members of the public hastily took their seats. A meeting of ECDC s full council only happens twice a year in East Cambridgeshire and speaking to counci

A PALPABLE sense of anxiety filled the council chamber on Tuesday evening as councillors, officers and members of the public hastily took their seats.

A meeting of ECDC's full council only happens twice a year in East Cambridgeshire and speaking to councillors in attendance, seldom could they remember a time when so much interest had surrounded a council meeting.

Much was at stake at the meeting itself, and this became increasingly obvious as more and more observers crammed into the brightly lit chamber.

Councillors were well aware that the dozens in attendance had come to make their last desperate plea for the council to continue supplying its market stalls to the stall holders, and expectation mounted as trader Mick Stimson prepared to hand in a petition carrying the signatures of almost 6,000 people opposed to the council's plans.

"The withdrawal of the stalls will hit the market hard," Mr Stimson told the council while mutterings of agreement spread amongst the gallery, "and the people who will suffer the most are those who have not been consulted at all."

Mr Stimson's short presentation was met with impassioned applause from fellow traders who had clearly staked their hopes that a last-minute reprieve would be granted.

Messages coming out of the council in recent weeks suggested that the decision to cut the market stalls was an irreversible as the council urgently needed to agree some £1.6 million worth of savings to present a balanced budget.

The surprise could not have been more audible therefore, when Conservative councillor Brian Ashton offered an amendment to the council that offered stall holders a temporary reprieve. The money, he said, would come from council reserves.

The startling change of heart from the Conservative side of the room was met with relief from those in the gallery who feared their livelihoods were at stake, but were met with a much frostier reception from Liberal Democrat councillors on the opposite side of the chamber.

"I don't think for one minute that we would be having this debate if the traders of Ely had not been out day after day in appalling conditions collecting almost 6000 signatures, Lib Dem councillor Hazel Williams said.

Her anger was echoed by Jeremy Friend-Smith who suggested the Conservative's style of governance showed more than a hint of a climb down in the face of public pressure.

Though the decision to save the stalls had been made and many of the traders opted to leave the chamber, the simmering annoyance between the parties continued throughout the meeting as time and again the councillors criticised and cajoled.

After lengthy discussions over the council budget for 2010/11, including a brief interlude to allow some explanation for confused councillors, the balance sheet was finally approved, albeit without the support of some 13 councillors who said they simply had not been involved enough with the process to be able to approve it.

As the arguments continued into the latter stage of the meeting and the approval of the city's Masterplan was discussed, councillor Mark Duckworth joined with councillor Mike Rouse in celebrating the document that had taken almost three years to put together.

The few members of the gallery who had soldiered on until 10pm applauded almost every point as wearying councillors put their case. In the end, however, the Masterplan was formally adopted by councillors to the relief of council leader Fred Brown.

"The Masterplan is a sound blueprint for the future, we don't want to be at the behest of developers as we have been in the past and I think this document gives us a clear plan with which to move forward."

By its end, the meeting had taken more than four hours, and the chamber had almost halved in attendance as people had drifted away.

All said, most were satisfied with what they had seen and heard on Tuesday evening. Although the sense of anxiety had long been dispelled, the belief that democracy was still alive and well - just about - remained in tact.

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