Local Hero or Corrupt Councillor? Assessing Our Current Understanding T. Dan Smith Part 1: Introduction

This article will initially seek to introduce you to T. Dan Smith and the debates that exist surrounding his political and personal careers. It is deliberately short and omits much fine detail however this is in service of its central aim: to peak your interest in this topic and spark some enthusiasm for the mysteries presented herein.

To summarise: Smith was born in 1915 to a working-class family in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England. His parents were communists, and in his youth, Smith joined the revolutionary communist party himself. He was a conscientious objector to the second world war and honed his skill for oration during this time whilst making impassioned speeches which criticised the British state. At the back of all his speeches he would always spot the same man, whom he would later discover was an MI5 operative tasked with watching him.

After the war he moved away from communism toward the labour party and rising through the ranks eventually found himself elected as leader of the city council in 1959. His time in office is controversial. As such I will present to you here the two narratives you will generally encounter when looking at Smith, the positive and the negative.

The Positive

T Dan Smith had a vision for Newcastle as a city reborn, the ‘Venice of the north’, and he hired planners and architects from around the world to build his new utopia. Newcastle became the first city in the UK to clear all its slums, and in their place tall towers were erected alongside modern blocks of offices and flats. Many of these were efforts of much-needed social housing, including the famous Byker wall. The whole road network was redesigned in tandem with the pedestrian footways; the entire structure planned to completely separate pedestrians and cars through an intricate network of tunnels and “sky walkways”. Smith also oversaw huge investment into local arts institutions, as well as the creation of the city’s first university and a profitable shopping centre. Few cities in the modern day see such investment. He is known as ‘the inventor of regionalism’ for his refusal to move to a better paid job in Westminster in favour of standing up for his home region, little wonder he was known as ‘the voice of the north’.  He was wrongfully accused of corruption, taken advantage of by the truly corrupt forces above him in higher government who didn’t like that he was a strong independent voice for the north that didn’t play nice with the political establishment.

The Negative

T Dan Smith almost ruined the city of Newcastle. The elegant Georgian streets were demolished in favour of monstrous grey blocks of concrete. The skyline was now dominated by towers which gave no effort to integrate themselves with the existing landscape and walkways which lead to nowhere. The greatest insult of all being that all this was done for his own personal gain. By hiring his own firms and those of his friends with government contracts, Smith made money hand-over-fist through underhand deals and unethical accounting. His contact with the notoriously corrupt architect John Poulson only implicates him further. He lied to the people of Newcastle for his own gain and his 1974 jail sentence of only 6 years was criminally short. He may have claimed he was a socialist, but when the money was in front of him he preferred to line his own pockets.

Guilty or Not Guilty?

So which narrative is correct? At this current stage, this is an unsolved mystery. You know as well as I. At the time the general opinion in the public and the media was that he was guilty. Having previously been a media darling, Smith found his popularity turned against him. However, over time that opinion has slowly began to change, and recently a book was published which proclaimed smith ‘not guilty as charged’. The case is far from closed. Is it not fanciful to believe that smith was framed by MI5 as he claims? But is it not also naïve to dismiss this claim, given we known this was a scandal which went deep into the heart of government?

His guilt is not the only question however. How about his legacy? Built corruptly or not, were Smith’s modernisations the right thing to do for the city? It’s hard to argue that the grey blocks as they stand today are particularly aesthetic, but it wasn’t Smith that dictated the architectural style of the time, these buildings were built everywhere. It’s also true that Smith never got to finish his vision for the city, would the whole network have worked better if it had been completed?

There are so many more questions to answer and mysteries to unravel. For example: why did Smith plead guilty in court but protest before and after that he was innocent? Answers are intended to be found! Part 2 will be my assessment of all the material produced about Smith thus far, and my argument for why there’s still more to be done.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 21st of May 2018

Last Modified: 22nd of May 2018 (Grammar Corrections)

If you’re interested in learning more you can watch this fascinating documentary from Amber Films.

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