'Penny Lane' Protests Penny-Pinching UK

Even the chanting protesters outside seemed to hush as Lisa Dempster, a single mother of three, her voice breaking with emotion, rose to address the hundreds crammed into Liverpool town hall's paneled debating chamber.

In her first public speaking engagement, perhaps her first time beneath the imposing dome of the Georgian building, she spoke for 2,399 people who had signed a petition against cuts to Knotty Ash Nursery, a small but vital organization that helps people survive in Britain's most deprived city.

Dave Hogan

"I work full time. I have paid my tax and national insurance and have paid into my pension for 24 years," she declared.

"My family has been punished by this government from all sides. The cost of living continues to rise sharply. My teenagers want to go to university to enable them to get good jobs. Both are having their educational maintenance allowance taken away. Both face years of debt.

"The government is cutting my tax credit towards the cost of my daughter's care. My daughter's nursery is facing closure. This is the deepest cut: I need to rely on good quality childcare. I need to know she is safe and cared for.

"I do not want to settle for second best. I am giving this government what they want. All I ask in return is to give my daughter the best chance in life."

The first, but not final, standing ovation of a long night began.

In a ritual played out in town halls nationally this month, speaker after speaker came forward on March 2 to plead for their particular service to be spared from the 2011-12 spending axe wielded by Whitehall, be it library, aid for business or charity.

Anita Begg wondered why the Childwall and Woolton Sure Start Children's Centre, serving 5,000 families, was threatened with closure soon after £1m was spent on it. Her petition was backed by 1,500 signatures.

Glen Fletcher, whose daughter has Down's syndrome, pondered life without the Calder Kids centre. "It is the only provider of respite care for disabled children in Liverpool," she said. "It is great for my daughter. If my family was to break down because we were not able to get respite my daughter would be taken into care."

Michael Eakin, chief executive of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the jewel in the city's cultural crown, sheepishly put forward his case for continued taxpayer funds. He could not help sounding like he was fiddling while Rome burned.

Alan Lewis, chief executive of Liverpool Charity and Voluntary Services, appealed against the 48 percent reduction in spending on the sector, which will cost 450 jobs.

"I am not denying your right to govern or approve this budget, I am appealing to the rest of humanity in this country to ensure that the most deprived city in England is treated fairly," he said.

Darren Ireland, of Liverpool Trades Union Council, opted for defiance, urging councilors to set an illegal budget in a rerun of the 1980s. He was backed by many of the protesters outside, militants scenting a return to the straightforward confrontation of the time.

Paul Brant, deputy leader of the Labour-led council, said that would be "abrogating our responsibility" and a government hit squad would implement the cuts anyway. "We would run out of money: in fact, what would happen is that the government would come in and take over the running of Liverpool city council. [Their cuts] would be far more painful and less fair."

Mr Brant said a cut of £91 million to £400 million of spending was required this year: next year's cut was £50 million. The roster of senior managers is to be cut from 91 to 43 and the chief executive's pay slashed by a fifth. Back-office costs are to be cut by a third.

He said: "Liverpool has lost £162 million [in all] while West Oxfordshire has only lost £20 million. We are not asking for anything except a fair deal for our city."

Councilors from all sides rejected the cuts, with Labour citing Financial Times columnists Martin Wolf and Samuel Brittan to support their argument for continuing a public sector stimulus.

Richard Kemp, a Liberal Democrat councilor, said: "Whatever government we had, there were going to be cuts," adding that it was only a return to the levels of spending in 2006-07.

The Lib Dems ran the city until May but it could be a generation before they do so again. Their leader, Warren Bradley, slumped in his seat for much of the debate. He looked as though he knew it.