Faust redeemed on Tyneside

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The Independent Online
T DAN SMITH is dead. Long live T Dan Smith. The redemption of the Faustian fixer who riveted corruption to the reputation of Tyneside will be hastened by his death last week.

The process is both personal and political. His rehabilitation was already evident in the metamorphosis of the myth and the man in the Eighties. But the rise and fall and redemption of T Dan Smith is suggestive of a larger story in British politics: the rise and fall of municipal modernism, and now the purge of the public from the making of metropolis.

Smith fashioned his own reincarnation from villain to victim, a tragic hero whose crimes he dismissed as mere misdemeanours. After all, which working-class lad whose mother died of hard labour wouldn't want a Jaguar and a suite in the Carlton Tower? His vaunted vision was a fiction borrowed from speculative, off-the-shelf system-builders. It brought big blank slabs to cities clothed in brick and beautiful stone, cleared slums, bulldozed Georgian grace, commissioned a mighty civic centre, encircled his city with a motorway moat.

Smith's reputation is that when he took over as Labour leader of Newcastle City Council in 1960, his tower blocks, precincts and motorways transformed an iconic industrial landscape into a modern metropolis.

Britain was a nation of slums, whose archaic urban fabric accused the old order and demanded renewal. That, above all, cemented the political consensus and the Herculean scale of renovation. (In 1962 alone there were more than 300 Comprehensive Redevelopment Schemes in Britain.)

The form of modernisation was promoted by the financial and planning incentives created by Harold Macmillan's Conservative administration in the Fifties. The form never enjoyed a popular mandate; it was the subject of a great national debate, but was vigorously promoted by private capital and purchased by public planners. City councils provided land liberated by the Macmillan government's loosening of planning controls, and did deals with developers who laid the new landscape of Britain.

After becoming council leader, Smith, travelling by chartered plane, scoured the country looking for a planner. In those days councils hardly had them. He brought in Wilfred Burns, late of Coventry and Surrey, the designer of the new Newcastle, who expressed a confident contempt for the 'slum-dwellers' and their incorrigible enjoyment of 'an extrovert social life'. Their neighbourhoods deserved to be dispersed, he said.

Smith's model of modernism is marked by an autocratic architecture - willies in the air - that celebrated his power. He claimed he was bringing Brasilia to Scotswood. It was macho, it was megalomaniac, and it was inaccessible to alteration by an informed public.

Indeed, participation by an educated rather than a merely admiring public would not have serviced the making of his myth. The photographs of Smith in the Sixties show him, like Faust in a trenchcoat hailing his brittle castles in the air, 'bestride the earth like a Colossus'.

His autocracy was shadowed by corruption. As soon as T Dan Smith acquired power on the city council, he acted as an agent for the speculative system-builder, Crudens. And by the end of the decade Smith was at the hub of a huge, corrupt network of politicians pitching for the architect John Poulson, who ran the biggest practice in Europe.

Poulson's bankruptcy hearings in 1972 exposed the extraordinary symbiosis between the construction companies and the politicians. Corruption was normal - the police had 300 politicians shortlisted for investigation when the hearings uncovered Poulson's infrastructure.

Smith was one of those who pioneered the use of public relations companies in local government. Among his PR companies' operations was putting politicians on their payrolls to promote redevelopment proposals. They also promoted his power in the Labour Party. Known as Harold Wilson's 'generalissimo' in the North, after his PR companies targeted the marginals in general elections, his networks became a party within the party.

The scale of the scandal overseen by T Dan Smith should have thrown the entire political system into crisis. Labour, Liberal and Conservative politicians, from the lowly council to the Cabinet, were implicated. Some men went to prison. The system survived.

Although leader of the council for only five years, T Dan Smith was emblematic of an era that celebrated and yet discredited modernism and municipalism. The era lasted less than two decades, challenged in the Seventies by citizens, including the so-called slum-dwellers, whose mutiny against the new built environment changed the terms of planning and politics.

But during the Eighties the 'regressive modernisation' of Thatcherism defeated that brief encounter with democracy. 'T Dan Smith was 30 years ahead of his time,' reckoned Mo O'Toole, a local government expert and a young councillor in Newcastle in the Eighties when Smith successfully reclaimed his party card. She was one of the six members of the constituency party who voted against him.

The new era was personified by Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for the Environment, who formalised the purge of the local democratic process in an echo of earlier times. 'Heseltine could not afford to allow regional autonomy, nor could he allow public expenditure free reign,' said Ms O'Toole this week, 'But his way out was a new balance, in the shape of the urban development corporations - entrepreneurial, beyond the reach of opposition, and closed to scrutiny.'

Such is the timbre of our times that, despite his six-year prison sentence, T Dan Smith's mission was held to be noble, tainted only by manly incontinence - vanity got the better of his valour, it was said. Nowadays, his name inspires a wry, jaunty, almost guilty, smile as people confess to a certain admiration, 'Yes, I know he was corrupt, but he had a vision . . . and it was all in the name of the working class . . . .'

Even Jeremy Beecham, the city council's Mr Clean leader, offered a generous obituary last week: 'I have been leader for three times as long, and I wouldn't claim to have achieved a tenth of T Dan Smith's achievement. He was one of the outstanding local government figures, along with Chamberlain and Herbert Morrison.'

Smith gave the imprimatur of class to a political project for the people that was never troubled by the unruly presence of the people. He later refined a revolutionary fantasy of regionalism as the fortress from which a new cadre of civic leadership would be selected for a new second chamber to replace the abolished House of Lords. He was interested in power and control, but not in democracy.

T Dan Smith mocked and yet endlessly invoked his own reputation as a ruthless dictator. The Observer in 1965 featured him as Britain's Mayor Daley of Chicago, a big city boss who believed that 'by the vote you could prove Beethoven was a footballer. If we ran ICI the way we run local government we'd all be bankrupt.'

Then he sounded like now. Lest we forget: 'The democratic vote is no way to get the sort of changes we need in the North,' declared the dictator.

(Photograph omitted)

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