T Dan Smith

tdan_flats150-mediumA while back I saw a film by Amber Films called ‘A funny thing happened on the way to Utopia’ about T Dan Smith – the Newcastle City Council leader in the Sixties who was later jailed for corruption. The film itself was in some ways a rather clumsy Eighties Channel Four effort that blended a dialogue between film makers about a documentary they were making about T Dan Smith (with interviews with the man himself) and a drama about a character based on T Dan Smith. At the same time the format was a strangely effective way of examining a complex tale and a complex man, from a number of differing angles and viewpoints.

T Dan Smith himself was a mesmeric interviewee. Although the evidence against him on corruption was hard to refute he could have convinced you of just about anything. If you want to see him in action the Amber Film is not too easy to find (I can’t find any extracts on the web) – however there is some good archive footage on real player on this BBC site.

When he set out his wider political analysis and strategy it was striking and compelling. In essence his view was that if you have a small number of driven, intelligent and like-minded people who have a clear strategy and understanding – but who are flexible on tactics – you can capture institutions and you can change the world.

However, having said that – forget about changing the UK from the centre. The London and national establishment is too entrenched. They will absorb you and you will fail – every time. By comparison establishing a strong powerbase in the regions is child’s play. You can then change the country by building up strong regions which creates pressure on the centre to devolve. If you achieve that you can bypass the national establishment and create a new Britain made up of powerful and confident regions.

He nearly succeeded as well.

He first put some brio and ambition into North East politics and governance by setting his sights on turning Newcastle into the Milan of the North. In his mind there was no reason why the North East couldn’t emulate Milan – a European industrial power house that embraced modernism, industry, the future and an appetite for life. A city that was quasi-independent from the deadening and opaque institutions, the establishment webs, of the nation-state.

The motorways, tower blocks and concrete plazas followed as Newcastle tried to bulldoze and system-build its way into the future.

Having become Mr Newcastle – the mouth of the Tyne – in 1966 T Dan Smith got himself onto atdan_car150 national commission for local Government re-organisation (the Redcliffe-Maud report) and pushed the case for regional government. He was making good progress too. If the report had been fully implemented the country would have been divided up into eight provincial councils (what we would probably now call regional councils). Below the regional councils there would be 58 large, single-tier councils. The exception being the largest urban areas where there would be three super Metropolitan authorities (West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Merseyside). The super Metropolitan authorities would have had lower tier councils below them. This was exactly the kind of structure that T Dan Smith would have taken full advantage of to create powerful regional Government.

But at the same time Smith had also set up his own public relations company. Among his clients was a boorish, bullying and all round identikit Yorkshire Bore by the name of John Poulson. Poulson was a talentless architect  who bribed his way through nationalised industries and local authorities to get commissions for various grim and ugly concrete eyesores some of which still disfigure British cities today. T Dan Smith’s PR work included extending Poulson’s largesse to councillors and officials who were happy to sell out their city’s futures for relatively pathetic amounts of cash (you can read a workmanlike journalistic account of the story in ‘Nothing to Declare’ if you can pick it up second hand).

But such was Poulson’s greed and vanity that in his dash for expansion his company became a pyramid sales operation – he was so over-exposed that he could only keep the company afloat by winning more and more commissions which cost him more and more in bribes. Eventually the failure to land some big contracts in Malta caused the company to go under.

The crash brought into the spotlight that T Dan Smith wasn’t the only one on Poulson’s payroll. Conservative Home Secretary Reggie Maudling was also pitching for business for Poulson (all part of Britain’s export drive don’t you know). In fact Maudling was partly selling the Poulson brand because he needed cash to pour into the money pit that was his wife’s vanity project – a ballet theatre in East Grinstead.

However when the Poulson empire fell apart it was T Dan Smith who was among the prosecuted – not Reginald Maudling.

What the film (or T Dan Smith) never made clear was why – when he had such determination, allied to a clear politically strategy (a strategy that might have paid off) – he got involved in greasing the wheels for the Poulson machine. Maybe he liked the high life, maybe he saw the Poulson operation as a small part of a bigger strategy for the modernisation of the North – and the ends justified the means. I don’t know.

cruddas_degray_st_1961One of the fascinations of the T Dan Smith story is why such a disciplined and idealistic plan for the re-making of the North as self-confident, creative, dynamic and prosperous cities descended into shoddy deals over shoddy buildings. And why working class councillors brought up in the neighbourhoods they represented sold out their neighbours’ futures in return for petty bribes to approve trashy housing schemes.

Indeed in many ways this is the original sin that propels the decades long narrative of the TV series Our Friends in the North – a disillusionment that leads to the dissolution of communities and relationships, the loss of ideals and the rise of Thatcherism.

But then of course T Dan Smith would say its not as straight forward as that. At the time tenants weren’t complaining about the new high rises – they wanted to know why they weren’t going up faster. When they would get their flat? And he argues in the film that whatever the faults in the new housing projects they were a massive improvement on the slums they replaced.

What is clear though is that there’s no-one much around in the city regions that is providing anywhere near the strategic leadership that T Dan Smith showed. The last of that was perhaps in the Eighties before Thatcher finally rolled over the left wing leadership in South Yorkshire and Merseyside. Now England outside London (perhaps with the exception of Manchester City Council) is a sleeping giant. There’s few MPs or Councillors that city residents would identify as the voice of their cities. These days political heavyweights seem to prefer the empty glamour of Westminster and London. When they finally get some ‘power’ as Ministers they invariably tow the line and when they are eventually turfed out of their Whitehall Deparment – and if they are heavyweights – then they seem to prefer wasting their time with inconsequential nonsense in the London media industry than doing something of consequence for the cities of the North.

Meanwhile in London and in Edinburgh people like Ken Livingstone and Alex Salmond have showed that like T Dan Smith you can have far more impact and have far more influence if you grab the opportunities that come from regional leadership than you can from being an MP or a Minister in Westminster.

And one day the North will rise again…

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10 thoughts on “T Dan Smith

  1. He was a man who cared about Newcastle and wanted to put it in the fore front of politics. At least with him…Newcastle was in the news..people talked about the place….where is it now??

  2. The man was a giant a hero to the west end of the city. The cry of “homes for hero’s” was well warn after two world wars and Slums awaited our boys when they returned from battle. Dan Smith stood up on a platform and told the Toon that he was going to knock down streets not houses and give us decent homes and he did just that.

    Cruddas park flats were were to be envied everyone wanted to get a flat Hot water inside toilets heating no leaks and no Rackman type landlords. Dan delivered where others lied and scoffed at the people they were there to help. Cruddas Park is now getting back to former glories Danny got it right…a true Hero to the local people not the chattering classes.

  3. T Dan was from a working class mining family in Walker, and he should be heralded for the opportunities he gave people of the North East in the 50’s, 60’s and into modern day. A geordie lad who was very passionate about ordinary working class people and their communities. His background gave him that understanding of working class life and gave him a vision of how the North East should be moulded. He took Newcastle by storm and rode a coach and horses through the city to give people in the community what they wanted and aspired to. Nostalgically people always look back with pride on the past, but the reality was a dreadful and hard life for many in the slums of Newcastle. T Dan and his working group gave all of these people hope for the future, a future with better health care, education, and less unemployment – that was the reality, long before ‘New Labour’. This was old labour, with socialist and revolutionary ideas for the city. I don’t believe T Dan got greedy at all, as some say. I truly believe he was caught up in what was conceived as corruption, and was ‘taken in’ by John Poulson. An intelligent man was Dan, but not infallible, no one is. He did see opportunity via his PR businesess to prosper himself at the same time as being politically active, and yes they may have been some crossover, which in some people’s eyes was seen as corruption. But as you will remember, Reginald Maudling didn’t go to jail, why not? Today many will say, there were smaller people who would ‘carry the can’ for maudling, and were T Dan and Andy Cunningham those people. On balance I think at ‘crunch’ time Dan relaised he was in it up to his neck, and there was no way out. He had done what he felt was right for the Labour Party and for Newcastle and the Region, he had worked so hard at that cause – like no other North East politician did or has done since. He reaslised that some of the things he had done, people would see as wrong, and that his reputation would be in ruins. But it’s like driving in a fast stream of traffic, you might be in full control, and not have any intention to hurt anyone, but essentially what you are doing is wrong …. but then when the Police don’t catch the driver at the front all the others suffer. Dan, despite his horrific prison ordeal maintained his innocence, as he rightly should have done. It is so sad that this great individual was hammered down to nothing when the North East needed him the most. He would have made the North East into a splendid prosperous region for all. And we are lucky to have retained some of his legacy, the Civic Centre, the Metro, Eldon Square, and what remains of the 60’s housing schemes, and Central Motorway, What would he have thought of Newcastle ending up as ‘party capital’ of the North, host to countless hen and stag doos. Essentially we have raised the profile of art and culture too, expanded the Metro system, tried to introduce again, devolved regional assembly, and continued to develop and prosper with housing. I think he will be looking down on the Brasilia of the North with some pride and affection. Arise Sir Thomas Daniel Smith.

      1. Thank you, I was only a child in the 60’s, but my Grandmar, born only 5 years after your dad does remember him as a “staunch labour man, who done a lot for Newcastle”. I was talking to a couple of old chaps the other day, who lived in Wallsend, and who didn’t know who Portugal Place was famous for, both of them talked about the Civic Centre and the marvellous building it is, inspired by your dad, who gave so much valuable input to its design and creation. I sat in the Garth a short time ago and imagined your dad doing the same and reflecting on his city life and achievements. I am sure you carry much pride Cliff. Colin

      2. Hi Cliff,

        I am a masters of architecture student at Northumbria university, and for my dissertation research I am looking at the intentions and aspirations of the Smith-Burns plans for Newcastle. I would be really interested in talking to you about your father as part of my research – if you are interested feel free to email me at alex.j.taylor@northumbria.ac.uk or just reply here.

        I’ve really enjoyed researching your dad’s plans for Newcastle, his visions and optimism for a Newcastle in the 60s are what drove me to choose this research project.

        I look forward to hopefully hearing from you,

        Kind regards,

        Alex Taylor

    1. My mother is T Dan Smith’s niece and she thought the world of him. I have just ordered the DVD – I feel proud to be related to him and very sad that I never had the chance to meet him

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