Corruption and Construction
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 20 2014.
Urban renewal seems to be inseparable from corruption. T Dan Smith was once a local hero in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then he was sentenced in 1974 to six years in prison for accepting bribes. Smith believed strongly in the need to clear Newcastle of slum housing and put a great deal of effort into regeneration plans.
Modernist planning was at its height in Britain during the 1960s, after the end of post-war austerity. Newcastle, as well as Manchester and Birmingham, was drastically transformed. It was a time of “clean sweep” planning, where the only constraints on redevelopment were economic. Conservation policy was restricted to the preservation of a limited number of major buildings and monuments. In his article, Alas Smith and Burns? Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne city centre 1959–68, John Pendlebury of the School of Architecture at Newcastle University, wrote “though modernist rationalism was the driving force in the city’s re-planning, it co-existed with a conscious policy of conservation, born out of a picturesque design tradition.”
Not everyone appreciated Smith’s efforts. Alec Glasgow wrote a contemporary folk song:
Weep, Geordie, weep,
At the murder of your city.
Weep, Geordie, weep
For the vandals have no pity.
Smith’s name is usually spoken in negative terms regarding the destruction of historic and aesthetically pleasing buildings, which were replaced with a concrete jungle.
Some called him Smith “Mr Newcastle” others called him “the mouth of the Tyne”. Another nickname was “one-coat Smith”. When he ran a painting and decorating firm, his painters were noted for their stingy use of materials. Despite this, the firm was granted more than half the contracts for painting council houses.
While his evangelical zeal to make Newcastle a better place may have been genuine, Smith’s desire to make money was stronger and got mixed up with his political ambitions. Smith was appointed Chairman of Newcastle council’s Housing Committee in 1958 and was elected as Leader of the City Council in 1959. He created one of the country’s first free-standing Planning Departments and made it the most powerful department in the council. He strengthened his power by creating an inner Cabinet of his own supporters. When Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, Smith was confident that he would be invited to take a national ministerial post. However, Wilson had vague suspicions about Smith’s probity and did not call him.
In 1962, Smith set up a PR firm to support redevelopment of other urban centres in the northeast, and later nationwide. Through this, he established links with John Poulson, an architect with a reputation for rewarding those who put business his way. Smith eventually received £156,000 from Poulson for his work, which typically involved signing up local councillors on to the payroll of his companies and getting them to push their councils to accept Poulson’s redevelopment schemes. Poulson earned more than £1,000,000 through Smith.
Another of Poulson’s contacts was the then Shadow Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling. In 1966, Maudling accepted an offer to be Chairman of one of Poulson’s companies for £5,000 per annum. Maudling’s son Martin, who had left Oxford University without taking a degree, went to work for another Poulson company. Poulson agreed to donate large sums of money to a charity patronised by Maudling’s wife. Maudling helped to bring pressure on the government of Malta to award a £1.5 million contract for the new Victoria Hospital on Gozo to Poulson. This had led to heavy losses to the Maltese government. A Parliamentary inquiry into Maudling’s conduct concluded that he had indulged in “conduct inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its members”.
No punishment was imposed but Maudling drank himself to death at the age of 61. The son, William Maudling, 42, who once lived in Downing Street with his family, threw himself from the 16th floor in 1999, his life ruined by heroin.
Smith’s PR firm was also involved with Wandsworth Borough Council in pushing a redevelopment scheme. Smith’s Wandsworth council contact, Alderman Sidney Sporle, fell under police suspicion of corruption in the late 1960s. The police investigation led to Smith himself being charged with bribery in January 1970. He was acquitted at his trial in July 1971, but was forced to resign all his political offices. Smith was arrested again in October 1973 after Poulson’s 1972 bankruptcy hearings disclosed extensive bribery. He pleaded guilty in 1974 and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment; despite his guilty plea, he continued to assert his innocence.
After his death, Smith’s career was the inspiration for Austin Donohue, a character in Peter Flannery’s play, Our Friends in the North. The part was first played by Jim Broadbent in the Royal Shakespeare Company production, and then by Alun Armstrong (who once stayed at our friends’ guesthouse in Badulla) in the 1996 BBC television drama version.
Back in the early 70s, I worked as a social security visitor in a poor district of Manchester. Some of the street names were already familiar to me from reading about the Moors Murderers. Brady and Hindley once trod those drab streets in Gorton and Ardwick. Things were changing in those days. The streets had been built as warrens of terraced back-to-back houses for the workers of the industrial revolution. Lives could be cramped and stunted but there was also a sense of community still celebrated by the popular teledrama Coronation Street, which started in the early 60s and is still running.
Manchester Corporation, like similar ruling bodies in other municipalities, probably had good intentions when they embarked on slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the old houses were pretty grim with outside toilets and some had gas mantles rather than electric light.
New blocks sprang up quite quickly. These resembled something out of a movie about the French Foreign Legion. Local people called them Fort Ardwick and Fort Beswick. As well as disrupting the sense of community enjoyed in the old terraces these new blocks might have been designed to assist crime with their walkways in the sky.
Even when they were brand new, these dwellings proved not fit for purpose. They were put up very quickly using prefabricated materials like a huge Lego kit. They were not as durable or well-designed as Lego.
The kind of concrete used caused condensation indoors so that the walls were dripping wet, causing respiratory problems in the elderly and in babies. Under floor heating was installed which could not be controlled by the tenants. Tenants were often baked to a frazzle and faced with huge fuel bills that they could not pay. A friend of mine lived in a council property in Hulme and found the place infested with cockroaches and beetles because the walls were built of straw.
I visited Manchester eight years ago and the area once covered by Fort Beswick had neat little rows of houses all on ground level. Although there was more space and the houses looked in good condition, they did rather remind me of the old terraced houses that were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.
Not far from Beswick is the new home of Manchester City football club. The new stadium was built at a cost of GBP 110 million for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The stadium is owned by the City Council and leased by the football club which, despite its previous lack of glamour, in 2008 became the richest club in the world after a takeover by an Arab consortium headed by Dr Al-Fahim, known as the Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi. A previous owner was former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, known to Mancunians as “Frank Sinatra”.
Manchester City FC signed an agreement with the Council in March 2010 to allow a £1 billion redevelopment led by architect Rafael Vinoly of land around the stadium and possible stadium expansion. In a spooky link with T Dan Smith, Vinoly was hiredby Wandsworth Council in London to develop the area around Battersea Power Station. The proposed development is supposed to generate 15,000 jobs. The network of tall curved blocks of offices will block the view of Sir Gilbert Scott’s industrial masterpiece. The accommodation is not intended to attract local families but hordes of predatory bankers with no children but easy access to the City and huge bonuses.
Manchester City’s stadium was a part of the massive Eastlands redevelopment. According to the consultative regeneration framework document, 3,000 jobs were created in ten years. This is low considering that at least 2,000 jobs were axed to cut public spending. The much-lauded regeneration of East Manchester never lived up to the hype of galvanising growth and job-creation in one of the city’s most deprived areas. New jobs tended to be poorly paid ‘flexible’ jobs, servicing the consumption habits of middle classes. Only half of the hundreds of new jobs at supermarkets went to local residents. Save the Children found that 27 %per cent of children in Manchester were living in “severe poverty” – the worst record of any local authority in the country.
On my last visit to Manchester, the city centre was very different from the bleak place it was during the Thatcher years. The IRA did the city a favour by blowing up the ugly Arndale Centre and opening the way to better buildings. The new city centre reminded me of Seattle. There were luxury apartments and chic hotels. Even old churches and cotton mills had been converted into housing. Salford used to be grim but now it has luxury accommodation and an arts centre dedicated to LS Lowry. Somehow, it was still grim.
According to the Eastlands document, 5,000 extra homes have been built in East Manchester. However, the Manchester-Salford Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (whoever came up with that name!) between 2008 and 2009 demolished 2,200 more homes than it built at a cost of GBP 600 million. The project ground to halt, leaving a wasteland behind it.
How will Beswick, Bradford and Lower Openshaw compete with the new enterprise scheme at Manchester Airport (another arm of the council)? There are many empty office blocks in Manchester and but more will be built at the airport.
Some people will have made a lot of money out of continually knocking British cities down and re-building them. Not many of those people will go to prison like T Dan smith did. In 1985, Smith wrote that “Thatcherism, in an odd sort of way, could reasonably be described as legalised Poulsonism. Contributions to Tory Party funds will be repaid by the handing over of public assets for private gain”.
Thatcherism and Poulsonism live on in all the British political parties.