A people person
We talk local life with East Dulwich councillor Charlie Smith, who has recently been appointed deputy mayor of Southwark
By Simon Tait, Dulwich Diverter, Sept-Oct 2016
He was almost a star several times, Councillor Smith. A little known fact about the cheery gent with the permanent grin known throughout East Dulwich as Charlie is that he isn’t Charlie at all. And it would be nice to think that the actual Arthur Smith had changed his name to avoid confusion with another well-known Londoner, but the truth is more prosaic: “My dad was Arthur Charles as well so if anyone in the house shouted out ‘Arthur!’ it was me dad,” he says. “So I got to be Charlie, and it stuck”.
Born in 1948 he married his childhood sweetheart Sue in 1966 when he was “17 and a bit” at the place to get married in the 60s, Chelsea’s Caxton Hall, almost standing in the queue between Ringo Starr, Barry Gibb and the other celebrities who chose the Central London Register Office for their nuptials. Charlie’s younger brother was the Radio Caroline DJ Tony Allan, who died from cancer in 2004 but is still a legend in pirate radio heritage.
Charlie’s own claim to the centre stage comes next year, when, barring mishaps, he is invested as Southwark’s 116th Mayor.
This year he and Sue celebrated their golden wedding anniversary surrounded by their three daughters and five grandchchildren. Londoners both, born and bred, Charlie and Sue came to East Dulwich 20 years ago, both hailing from Pimlico where they met as teenagers. He had left school at 15 to become a joiner in the building industry, but after five years of evening classes – “In the job application box for certificates I didn’t think I’d impress anyone if all I could put was ‘25 yards swimming’” – he found himself with A levels in English literature, criminal law, sociology and economics, all handy for a lifetime of public service.
He became a surveyor for a Paddington housing association working with the homeless, and then did the same with the government’s Property Services Agency and then for the Peabody Trust. He worked for Westminster Council’s Cash Incentive Scheme, helping council house dwellers find appropriate accommodation. He worked with the homeless in Croydon and for the last 12 years before his retirement in 2012 was a surveyor with the Hyde Housing, the association set up 50 years ago to help people excluded form the housing market.
Early on, local politics became an abiding interest. Charlie made the tabloids in 1990 when he was standing for Westminster Council the leader of which, Lady Shirley Porter, was standing alongside him at the count. “The press were all there, Mrs Thatcher was expected, and they asked me if I was going to win. I put up Churchill’s victory sign. Then they asked me what I thought of the Poll Tax and I reversed the sign – and in the photographs that were in the next day’s papers it looked as if I was aiming the gesture at Shirley Porter, with the headline ‘No way to treat a lady’,” he recalls with a chuckle. He didn’t win the seat.
But years of calling on needy people in some of the poorest corners of the capital has provided invaluable experience through three terms as a Southwark councillor. “You learn to observe things, and how to take care – we learned a lot about not taking unnecessary risks from the Suzy Lamplugh case (a young estate agent on a routine call who disappeared in 1986 and has never been found),” Charlie says, “and now from the murder of Jo Cox. You never know what’s going to come, but you have to learn how to deal with folk, how to behave. Being able to listen and take people and their problems seriously always puts you in good stead”.
He stood for Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster South in 1992, coming second after the Conservative, and tried again for Chichester five years later with a similar outcome in spite of garnering 10,000 votes, but his heart has been in local affairs. In 1998 he was elected for the Ruskin Ward, now Village Ward, and in 2002 continued as the councillor for East Dulwich, serving until Labour lost control of Southwark Council in 2006. In 2010 he stood in another Southwark ward, Cathedral, without luck, but was elected for East Dulwich in 2014 and shares the ward with two Lib Dem councillors.
“The place has changed almost out of recognition since 1996,” he says. “House prices have spiralled up, and East Dulwich is much more prosperous than when we first came here, but you shouldn’t make assumptions that the people change. Snap judgements about age and class are nearly always wrong, and you need to listen to what people want to tell you before you know how you can help”.
There have been major changes in our high street, Lordship Lane, with the largest Foxtons estate agency in the South East on the site of the old Social Security office, restaurants and wine bars opening, and Marks & Spencer to comng soon in place of Iceland, a new primary school where the police station once stood, key worker housing where a cinema was, a Picturehouse at what was St Thomas More Hall, and beyond East Dulwich Station a complex development going through the planning process to give his beloved Dulwich Hamlet football club a new arena.
“Planning is a challenge in East Dulwich and I have to keep an eye on developers to make sure they stick to what has been agreed,” he says.
In East Dulwich the issues of housing and benefit entitlements of 20 years ago have faded away in favour of property development and parking. He has experience on the borough’s education and planning committees and is proud of the ward’s schools and how they have developed. Although local councils are no longer education authorities, they can still play a part by helping to buy sports equipment or to fund school outings.
He is a popular guest at school prize days, preferring not to resort to the bromides of many speakers as they exhort children to work hard and pay attention. “No, the last one was at Heber School where I decided to talk to the children about Syria and refugees, and to think about children less fortunate who had been forced to leave their homes”, Charlie says. “It was going very well, and then the head, David Block, said ‘I know about that too, my parents were child refugees from Nazi Germany’, and suddenly it was so much more real for the kids. It was a good moment”.
Now he serves on the licensing committee and often spends his evenings in the back of a police car, touring alcohol outlets and checking that their business equates with their licence. “Licensing has to take into account where the outlet is – is there a reputation in an area for problems with drink? – and their hours to make sure they’ve closed sales in accordance, as well as not serving alcohol to under age customers,” he says. “It’s important to see for myself what’s going on, and we’re not slow in taking people’s licences away if they’ve broken the rules.”
But at a civic ceremony in Southwark Cathedral in May the Labour group appointed him Deputy Mayor of Southwark, a largely ceremonial role “visiting everywhere in robes and badges” as an ambassador for the borough, which puts him in line to succeed Kath Whittam as Mayor next year.
“I love it,” Charlie says. “Last week we were at Hornchurch with all the mayors at an outdoor concert, before that there was an indoor cricket competition at Lord’s in which a team of autistic children competed – marvellous, and so well disciplined.”
He tries not to let his civic duties interfere with his pastoral ones, however. “It’s being on the doorstep, talking to people, not just at election time but all year round, that makes the difference to people here and it’s an honour to represent them”, he says. “Sometimes I can’t help but sometimes I can, and that makes it worthwhile”.