Obituary: T. Dan Smith

Thomas Dan Smith, local councillor: born 11 May 1915; City Councillor, Newcastle upon Tyne 1950-65; Chairman, Northern Economic Planning Council 1965-70; Member, Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69; Chairman, Peterlee and Aycliffe Development Corporation 1968-70; author of Essays in Local Government 1965, Education, Science and Technology 1970; married 1939 (one son, one daughter); died Newcastle upon Tyne 27 July 1993.

YOU COULD not meet a more engaging character than T. Dan Smith in the years before he went to jail. There was a time, back in the early Sixties, when covering the proceedings of the Newcastle City Council could be a lot more entertaining than a visit to the nearby Theatre Royal, and it was all down to Dan Smith, the extraordinary leader of the Labour group.

He twinkled, he made jokes, he broke stories, indeed he did everything to make the lives of young cub reporters - of which I was one - more felicitous. And he was so smart. This was something that everybody - even the Tories - recognised. Indeed, Smith had few personal critics in those days. It was as if everybody recognised that they had a man who was going places and that his city, and indeed the whole of the north-east, was going with him.

In a region that had been depressed for so long, Smith's mixture of high, wide and handsome plans and low, sometimes earthy witticisms was the tonic that most felt was needed. He called Newcastle 'the Athens of the north-east' and that went down a treat, even though some felt his penchant for tower-block development was less than classically correct. When there was talk of his becoming a cabinet minister in the Labour government it was regarded as an occasion for mourning. It was felt that he was too big a man, and too much of the people, to become yet another political pygmy in Westminster.

Smith was born in 1915, a Durham miner's son, and left school at the age of 14. His early political leanings were to the extreme Left. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, joined the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and was expelled from both. He later joined the Labour Party and rose with great speed, becoming a city councillor in Newcastle in 1950.

Smith had begun his working life as a painter and decorator, an experience that came in useful when, as head of the powerful Northern Economic Planning Council, he had the task of refurbishing Northumberland and Durham. He made a fair stab at it too, before he disappointed a region's hopes by getting too greedy.

His reputation only just survived the Sixties. On Jaunary 1970 detectives knocked at the door of his house in Newcastle and he was arrested. Sydney Sporle, a Wandsworth councillor, was accused of taking bribes, and Smith was one of those charged with giving them. Smith got off, but Sporle went to jail. Then in 1972 the well-known Yorkshire architect John Poulson went bankrupt. Examination of his books revealed a web of unexplained payments. As the hearings rolled on, many Establishment names became involved. Reginald Maudling, the Conservative MP, who had formerly been chairman of two of Poulson's companies, resigned as Home Secretary. There were reports of conflicts of interest among councillors nationwide, but particularly in the north-east.

The man they called 'Mr Newcastle' was jailed for six years in 1974 on charges of corruption, after admitting conspiracy to swing cut-price deals for Poulson. It was claimed at his trial that he received pounds 156,000 over seven years from Poulson, usually in the form of payment to public relations companies. Smith served three years of his sentence but always denied lining his own pocket. He explained his guilty plea as being the result of stress suffered during the four years it took for the case to come to trial. He would say: 'I was a broken man living on Valium and Carlsberg Special.'

Prison, if anything, restored something of his bounce. On the day he walked free from Leyhill open prison in Gloucestershire he took part in a radio phone-in programme, and he became assiduous in the cause of penal reform. He would, on a modest salary of pounds 2,500 from the Howard League, induce big names from industry and broadcasting to go into jails and try to persuade old lags to go straight. He was campaigning again.

But he was clearly a man still tortured by the circumstances that had brought him down. And he had much time to reflect on them in his 14th- floor tower-block flat in Cruddas Park, Newcastle, built as part of his crusade against back-to-back hovels. But he would never give up a fighting way of talking.

In one of his last interviews he said he filled his days giving public talks, fighting for pensioners' rights, penning a political history and playing classical records. 'I would never think of retiring,' he said, 'I would drop dead first, preferably while I'm speaking.'

In 1982 he started research work with Amber Films, an independent production company based in Newcastle, to make the drama-documentary T. Dan Smith, in which he played himself. The film, which examined the background to the Poulson affair, had a cinema release in 1987, and was broadcast on Channel 4 the following year.

His final public performance was on BBC Radio Newcastle's Sunday morning Talkback show nine days before he died, when it was said that he showed 'his old verve and fire', but not to those of us who can remember the T. Dan Smith from before the fall. Now that old, untainted Smith was really something to listen to.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there