Under the spell of ‘Mr Newcastle’

T. Dan Smith in 1988
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The legacy of T. Dan Smith

With government and local councils signed up for a new devolved Combined Authority with an elected mayor for West Yorkshire, the race for the top job has begun. Although touted as a new idea by central government, elected mayors aren’t a new phenomenon. They’ve been around for decades in both the United States and Europe. In the UK the elected mayor model has been a feature of several cities such as London, with controversial figureheads like Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, Liverpool with Joe Anderson, Greater Manchester with Andy Burnham, Teesside with Ben Houchen and North of Tyne with Jamie Driscoll. The government want more.

Historically, we’ve been here before. One variant of this can be seen with the rise of the charismatic town hall boss T. Dan Smith in Newcastle. Dismissed by many as a corrupt politician on the make, Smith is now the subject of an alternative perspective by writers ranging from former Wear Valley Lib-Dem leader Chris Foote Wood and Tyneside historian Nigel Todd.

Smith was never mayor and was only council leader for six years. Yet the mark he made on the city – for good or ill – can still be seen to this day, many years after his spell as leader came to an end. Dan Smith, a working-class bloke was a revolutionary socialist in his youth, but mellowed by 1950 when elected to Newcastle City Council representing the riverside seat of Walker. By 1955 Smith was running a booming painting and decorating business on Tyneside. He had time to become active in public life. His rise in local government was spectacular. In 1960 he became leader of the city council based on an effective electoral machine.

It’s true that Smith got caught up with fraud and property scandals with John Poulson, a London architect, and made a number of blunders which blighted the city centre such as the destruction of the old Royal Arcade. But as Todd and Foote Wood stress, this shouldn’t distract from his major achievements.

Smith, in his personalised jag ‘Dan68’, was a man with a plan, a visionary, who wanted to put the North East on the map. Known as ‘Mr Big’, ‘Mr Newcastle’ and the ‘Voice of the north’, T. Dan was without doubt a charismatic, competent and witty politician who could connect with the business community, the trade union movement and the industrial working class. Throughout the 1960s Smith transformed Newcastle from a backward looking, neglected, provincial backwater into a forward-thinking ‘dynamic modern metropolis’ with the ambition of making the North East the ‘new Brasilia’ and ‘Venice of the North’.

Smith, a moderniser when Tony Blair was a schoolboy in Durham, was able to develop the region as an economic powerhouse (before the term was coined) to rival cities like Leeds and Manchester, while spearheading Newcastle as the regional capital as ”renaissance city of education, night spots and public arts”. 

Smith was both committed and passionate about opening up educational opportunities in a region which had been denied them in contrast to the South East. He laid down the foundations of transforming the city’s archaic under-performing secondary modern schools which most Geordies went to having failed the discredited 11-plus (like myself). By 1968 Newcastle had embraced the comprehensive principle of equality with the aim of tearing down stubborn class barriers. King’s College, a branch of Durham University, was rebranded Newcastle University with investment alongside the development of the Polytechnic and the College of Arts and Technology later rebranded as Newcastle College. As Todd points out, Smith insisted that the latter be sited in the heart of the city where it would form part of a ‘critical mass’ of educational provision coupled with a new central library and department in the impressive modernist Civic Centre.

Smith was responsible for demolishing the slums in both the east and west ends of the city with new housing developments in Cruddas Park and the Grade 11-listed Byker Wall as well as promoting joined-up thinking and action with other public authorities and investors. Foote Wood notes he preserved the city’s historic walls and regenerated the Victorian parks, cleaned up the River Tyne and developed the airport. He was also directly responsible for the Eldon Square retail complex in the heart of Newcastle which not only met the consumer aspirations of the region’s shoppers but pulled in thousands of visitors too.

The Tyne and Wear integrated Metro system, based on the Parisian model, is one of Smith’s most innovative transport policies. His failure wasn’t so much in bringing in ‘concrete monstrosities’ or brutal styles of architecture (most took place after Smith’s tenure), but in failing to persuade the bosses of Newcastle United to convert St James’s Park into an accessible community facility.

Smith was brought down as part of a succession of corruption scandals, involving property developers, architects, planners, police officers, PR consultants and a Conservative Cabinet Minister – some with Masonic links. Smith was no freemason – he had no time for secret societies. Smith paid a heavy price of being over-zealous and getting caught up in an inter-connected web of fraud and bribery. He, John Poulson and Durham Council boss Andy (‘Handy Andy) Cunningham were convicted with prison sentences. But arguably Smith was a pawn in an establishment sting in which the big fish got away.

In his later years Smith became actively involved in pensioner rights and prison reform. He died in 1993. Today Smith’s legacy unleashes a peculiar combination of anger, shock, condemnation, admiration and ‘nostalgia’. The T. Dan Smith story is known to millions. In the award-winning TV drama Our Friends in the North, the character Austin Donohue, played by Tyneside actor Alun Armstrong, was based on him.

Despite the corruption, Smith’s accomplishments shouldn’t be overlooked. He was a man ahead of his time. Even Lord Beecham, former leader of Newcastle Council notes: ”Smith was a pioneering leader of active local government, a civic leader and hugely charismatic.”

As more regions across England brace themselves for elected mayors in 2021 the claim of over-concentration of power in the hands of one person will be prevented by having a robust governance model based on overview and scrutiny. But whoever gets these top jobs it’s unlikely they’ll be able to rival T. Dan Smith, the “Voice of the North”.

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