A raucous cheer that went up in a packed county courtroom in Barnet this week could reverberate around the nation's town halls this winter.
As David Cameron prepared to deliver his "aspiration nation" speech to the Conservative conference in Birmingham, 110 miles away in Margaret Thatcher's former constituency a hotchpotch alliance of squatters, retired booksellers, local bloggers and international anti-capitalist activists whooped as a district judge blocked attempts to close a vibrant community library that has popped up in the shell of one controversially closed as part of the Tory-led government's most radical experiment yet in shrinking local public services.
In the month since the Friern Barnet library reopened – illegally, according to Barnet council, which wants the site sold to raise upwards of £400,000 – local residents have donated 5,000 books to restock the shelves.
A volunteer staff of guerrilla librarians have kept the building open 48 hours a week; there are children's story sessions and exercise classes; and the lights are kept burning by donations dropped into a biscuit tin.
It might sound like an exemplary vision of the so-called "big society": a community looking after itself following the retreat of the state.
But the sale of this 78-year-old library is part of the radical reform proposals formulated by Barnet – labelled "easyCouncil" for its vision of a no-frills approach. Plans include outsourcing £1bn of contracts to private companies for running everything from the crematorium to the planning and building control departments, sharing lawyers with another council, closing day centres for the elderly and quadrupling some parking fees.
Judge Marc Marin ordered a full trial of the competing claims to the library, to the disappointment of the council. Peter Phoenix, the blond, dreadlocked spokesman of the council's opponents, was delighted.
"It looks like the kids get Christmas in the library," he said with a whoop. "We've got Conservative central office worried here. They wanted to have success here and then roll this model out across all the boroughs."
The need to make cuts is real but the big question is how to do it. Barnet has published a chart – known locally as "the graph of doom" – which shows how it will have no money to spend on anything apart from children's services and adult social services by 2030 because of rising costs and declining and flat budgets.
Its "One Barnet" policy is perhaps the most radical response yet to 28% cuts in Whitehall funding of local authorities across England and Wales.
"We have been cutting for 10 years in Barnet," said Richard Cornelius, leader of the council. "We can't keep salami slicing so we have had a complete look at the way we do things. Our idea is to take the money out of administration and keep providing the services, but we won't be doing it directly. We are scheduled to save more than £65m."
"I don't think Mr and Mrs Resident are too bothered about who delivers the services," added Dan Thomas, deputy leader of the council with responsibility for finances.
"Yes, it's a bold move because it is the first time some of these services have been outsourced in local government, but there's nothing wrong with being first."
According to local government analyst Andy Mudd, in a report for the public services union Unison, the reforms go to "the heart of local government responsibilities for the safeguard and protection of public health and economic wellbeing".
He said "the impact of failure could be catastrophic". Opponents believe the project is already in trouble and the prospect of a trial over the library is not the only problem.
The council's own figures, seen by the Guardian, reveal that over the last two years the borough has spent £670,000 more on trying to save money than it has actually saved, although the project is now edging into the black. The programme has so far cost £6.36m, while the savings have amounted to £5.69m.
Last week, one of the chief architects of the reforms, council chief executive Nick Walkley, resigned unexpectedly, while councillor Brian Coleman, who oversaw the privatisation of parking services, is currently on police bail after allegations he assaulted a woman who filmed him parking in a loading bay.
Other hard-cutting Tory councils appear to be in crisis too. The deputy leader of Cornwall county council resigned on Thursday over a £300m outsourcing plan that is facing a popular revolt. The council had hoped to save £2.5m a year by outsourcing services including payroll, benefits and libraries. In his resignation letter, Jim Currie said: "The financial risks involved with the rush into the new joint venture proposals are unacceptable. The joint venture is basically too large to control."
Last year, Suffolk county council halted its own "virtual council" plan to outsource its services.
In Barnet, emotions are running high and Thomas concedes there can be "shouting and screaming" in council meetings.
BT, Capita and EC Harris are vying to take over two major contracts – one estimated to be worth up to £275m over 10 years to run building control, planning, highways and transport, the crematorium and cemetery, trading standards, licensing and environmental health.
The planned outsourcing of back office services has been estimated to be worth up to £750m. Youth services have been cut almost in half from six youth centres in 2010 to three this year and the number of full-time equivalent staff cut from 99 to 55.
A nurse working in sheltered housing where wardens have been removed told the Guardian: "I have residents who sit in their nightclothes all day because they cannot afford the alternative. Where is the dignity in this?
"These same folk who used to love going to a day centre can no longer go as, they tell me, it costs £35 per day and an extra £5 for transport. So now they sit all day, staring at four walls or at the TV. Where have we gone so wrong?"
All this has been met by an insurgency of residents, trade unions and a broad coalition of investigative bloggers. Their names give a clue to the knockabout tone of political debate: Mrs Angry writes a blog called Broken Barnet, while others go under the names Mr Reasonable, Mr Mustard, Barnet Eye and Citizen Barnet.
"The community library is the 'big society' by definition, but it is not the 'big society' as the government envisaged it," said Mrs Angry, whose real name is Theresa Musgrave. "They wanted the 'big society' to be obedient and to enable the cuts they wanted."
This is an ecumenical insurrection where full-time activists and union leaders worried about jobs are joined by retirees and local mothers. The cause has attracted the support of the leftwing film-maker Ken Loach, who has contributed to a documentary about the matter called The Billion Pound Gamble.
But there is also anecdotal evidence that the aggression of the council's cuts is alienating core Conservative voters.
Ann Foskett, a Tory-voting grandmother who has lived in the area for 40 years, dropped off a bag of books at the library as the activists celebrated their court victory with tea and biscuits. She said the closure was "absolutely scandalous" adding: "I do vote Tory normally, but things have gone to pot, particularly for old people. There used to be lots of local groups meeting in libraries, but there's nothing now."