With the Government and three local councils North of the Tyne ready to sign up for a new devolved Combined Authority with an elected mayor, the race for the top job has begun. Top businessman and philanthropist Jeremy Middleton is likely to throw his hat into the ring with the backing of the business community while Labour, the Conservatives , Lib-Dems and UKIP have yet to put in.
Although touted as a new idea by Lord Heseltine and Tony Blair, elected mayors are not a new phenomenon. They’ve been around for decades in both the United States and Europe with Bill De Blasia of New York and Ada Colau, Barcelona’s first woman mayor since 2013.
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 and Liverpool with Joe Anderson, Hartlepool and North Tyneside. The Government has imposed the Mayor to go hand in hand with a Cabinet run combined authority.
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 both Newcastle and our region. Dismissed by many as a corrupt politician on the make some writers ranging from Lib-Dem leader Chris Foot-Wood and democratic socialist Nigel Todd, provide an alternative perspective on Smith’s tenure as leader of Labour run Newcastle City Council 1960-65 and his role as the unofficial leader of the North east till 1973.
Dan Smith, a working class bloke, was a revolutionary socialist in his youth, but mellowed by 1950 when elected to Newcastle Council representing the riverside seat of Walker. Smith by 1955 was running a booming painting- decorating business on Tyneside. He had time to become active in public life. His rise in local government was spectacular. In 1960 he became Labour 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 North East councillors Nigel Todd and Chris Foot-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, able and witty politician who could connect with the business community, the trade union movement and the industrial working class. Throughout the sixties Smith transformed Newcastle from a backward looking, neglected, provincial backwater into a forward thinking ‘dynamic, modern metropolis’ with the ambition of making our region the ‘new Brasilia’ and ‘Venice of the North’.
Smith, a moderniser when Tony Blair was a school boy in Durham City, 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.’’
Alderman 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 poor performing secondary modern schools which most went to having failed the discredited 11-plus (like myself). By 1968 Newcastle had embraced the Comprehensive principle of equality of opportunity with the aim of tearing down stubborn class barriers and inequalities.
‘Kings 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 (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 – a protected building.
Smith was responsible for demolishing the slums in both the east and west end 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. Foot-Wood notes he preserved the city’s historic walls and regenerated the Victorian parks, cleaned up the river Tyne and developed the Airport now regarded as international in scope with direct flights to NYC.
He was also directly responsible for the Eldon Square in the heart of our city which not only met the consumer demands of the region’s shoppers but pulled in thousands of visitors from Scandinavia too. The Tyne and Wear integrated metro system, based on the one in Paris, 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 rule), but in failing to persuade the bosses of Newcastle United Football club to convert St. James’ Park into an accessible community facility.
Smith, a successful entrepreneur and top civic figure, was brought down in a succession of corruption scandals, involving property developers, architects, planners, ‘bent’ police officers, PR consultants and a Conservative Cabinet Minister – many with masonic links. Smith was no freemason – he had no time for secret societies which were rife on Tyneside in the seventies.
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 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.
Today Smith’s legacy invokes a bizarre combination of anger, shock, condemnation, admiration and nostalgia.
The T. Dan story is known to millions leading to the award winning TV drama ‘Our Friends in the North’ in 1996. Despite widespread corruption with many lining their own pockets, Smith’s accomplishments shouldn’t be overlooked. Smith was a man ahead of his time. Sir Jeremy Beecham, a former leader of the council concludes, ‘’T. Dan Smith was a pioneering leader of active local government, a civic leader and hugely charismatic.’’
As the region prepares itself for its first Tees Valley Metro Mayor in 2017 the claim of over-concentration of power in the hands of one person can be prevented by having a robust governance model based on scrutiny and overview.
Whoever gets the top job it’s unlikely they’ll be able to rival T. Dan Smith, the region’s ‘Voice of the North’.