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6 November 2000

A cobbler takes on the city council

Allegations of theft, racism, harassment: Labour Durham would like to keep them all quiet. But counc

By Peter Dunn

In Durham cathedral the other day, technicians were cluttering the place with cables ready to film J K Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. White cobwebs hung in the triforium arches high above the echoing nave. Snow lay crisp and even in the cloisters. A pair of live owls with fly-on parts looked startled, as owls do. Tourists think this is the finest show in town, but the citizens of Durham – including members of its Labour-run city council – know better.

Ten minutes’ walk across Palace Green takes you to Claypath, a steep street of shops and pubs and the premises of The Durham Cobbler (est 1854) and its muscular proprietor, Tony Martin, 37. For the past 18 months, Martin has waged war against the power of this Labour heartland. His website has become the clearing house for news of the alleged misdeeds of the city fathers and civic officials. These include fraud, blackmail, racist harassment, theft – and, in the case of the council’s head of recreation (who later resigned), romps with four women employees, recorded on nine hours of tape found in his swimming-pool locker. Labour has ruled Durham for generations and, when you browse through the cobbler’s website, you begin to understand why Tony Blair, as recently reported, may be sympathetic to the idea of breaking such baronial strongholds by introducing proportional representation for council elections.

Martin’s shop window, plastered with newspaper cuttings (“Council chiefs face theft quiz”; “City chief arrested in land deal probe”; “Durham council are corrupt and racist”), attracts attentive crowds. Occasionally, flattened against the glass like a banshee with steering trouble is a solicitor’s rocket. One of them warned, on behalf of three Labour councillors, that, if the notices remained two days after receipt of the letter, “proceedings will be served upon you personally without further correspondence”.

The cobbler’s problems started two years ago when the Prince Bishops shopping centre opened just down the hill, its developers laying double yellow lines along Claypath. Martin’s business (which has halved since then) was affected because many of his customers are elderly and could no longer park outside his shop.

“The shop’s been here as a cobblers since 1854,” Martin says. “My father took over in the Seventies and I’ve worked here 24 years . . . We used to do all the miners’ hobnail boots, and we’ve got pensioners in their eighties who came in here with their parents as a little child. When I saw Colin Shearsmith, the city council’s chief executive, about the yellow lines, he said they’d been put in for safety reasons and that my answer was to leave Durham and set up somewhere else. I got a bit heated and said: ‘The council’s got a vested interest in this to make sure the new centre works. You’ll regret the day you did this. I’ll make you pay for it.’ He said: ‘What can you do about it? You’re just a back-street cobbler.'”

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One cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story; Shearsmith refused my request for an interview. But what is beyond dispute is that Shearsmith, along with a local businessman, Robert Fulton, was arrested (and later exonerated) by police investigating allegations of fraud over £60m worth of city development schemes.

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Martin says that attempts have been made to silence him. Police were urged to prosecute him under the 639-year-old Justice of the Peace Act, on the grounds that someone might throw a brick through his window. They refused to do so, but confirmed to me that such a request had come from city councillors whom they declined to identify.

Other councillors have tried to sabotage a new CD, Old Durham Town, recorded by Martin with a local band, Sugarwood, and based on the original Sixties song by Roger Whittaker. They complained to Whittaker’s management group, BMG in London, that the Martin version was “political” and ought to be stopped. The cobbler played it for me on the jukebox in The Big Jug, the pub next to his shop. One verse goes: “I’ve been in business over a hundred year/Told all the council about my fear/ They just growled and start to sneer/They said ‘Son, you betta leave this town’.”

Even the local MP, Gerry Steinberg, has been dragged into the dispute. His office is directly opposite the cobbler’s shop, and Martin says that he taunted Steinberg in the street about Shearsmith’s arrest. The fiercely individualist MP went nuclear and called him “a fucking arsehole”.

Steinberg, MP since 1987, confirms this and also that drugs squad officers (without his prior knowledge, he insists) used his office in Claypath to spy on the cobbler’s shop after receiving allegations – which were never substantiated and which Martin describes as “ludicrous” – that it was being visited by drug pushers.

Martin showed me a letter that the MP had written to a senior councillor, Bill Kellett, about Kellett’s role in asking the police to investigate the city’s financial affairs. Steinberg called Kellett’s action “scurrilous and beyond the silly infighting that has been taking place in the Labour group”, and invited him to consider his position.

Kellett is a former Labour group leader. When he held that position, four councillors launched a raid on his drinks cupboard, which later led to a police inquiry. Kellett told me that, when the police interviewed him about the incident in 1997, he did not press charges because of the imminent general election. He also explained why he took his concerns about the council’s finances to the police, rather than to his Labour group colleagues. “I never forget,” he said, “that when I took over as leader, a very senior councillor, with 30 years in the party, looked me in the eye and said: ‘Get what you can, any money you can, while you’re leader. If you don’t, someone else will.'”

Labour’s latest troubles concern allegations of racism, which are being investigated by the party’s regional organiser, Brian Thistlethwaite. The central figure in the row is the council’s former chief safety officer, Abiodun “Mac” Williams, who is due to become chairman of the city’s magistrates bench in January.

Earlier this year, Williams accepted a £6,500 council pay-off and gagging order two days before he was due to give evidence at an industrial tribunal. A five-page document, detailing his complaints, has now been posted on Martin’s website. The cobbler claims that Thistlethwaite told him: “You put that stuff in your window and your feet won’t touch the ground. We’ll have you in court.”

This version is vehemently denied by regional headquarters. “Mr Thistlethwaite recalls telling Mr Martin that what he put in his window was nothing to do with the Labour Party,” a spokesman said.

Williams’s testimony paints an extraordinary portrait of a council riven by institutionalised drinking and public altercations, which, on one occasion, led to a fight between two recreation officials. When Williams questioned them, one said angrily: “It has nothing to do with you, you black bastard.” Other senior officers are said to have referred to Williams as “the blackie of Byland Lodge [a council office]” and “the dark cloud”.

Then there was Mildred Brown, the council’s deputy leader. When she saw Williams looking gloomy, she is alleged to have said: “What’s the matter with you, you black bastard?” Yet Williams’s own document then records: “I replied telling her she was ‘completely out of order’. . . From the look on her face, Cllr Brown appeared to be devastated at what she had done. She immediately apologised and put her arm around my shoulders and, with tears in her eyes, said: ‘I would not hurt you for the world’. . . I did not even think of taking the matter further, as I was more than satisfied that no hurt was intended.”

When I telephoned Brown about the Williams account, she said: “It’s been alleged I made that remark, sir. I’m not saying anyone’s telling truth or lies.”

Shearsmith issued a statement through the council’s press officer. “There is a confidential agreement which the friends of Mac Williams are turning into a farce to try to keep some life in a story which is more than ten months old. Durham City Council has kept to the agreement and cannot reply in any detail to questions. There was a year-long investigation into the claims by Mr Mac Williams . . . alleged racist remarks were part of that investigation and not one of them was substantiated during a very lengthy and detailed investigation.”

The mystery remains as to why Williams drew back from the tribunal at the last minute, thus saving the council possible public embarrassment. Williams cannot comment, but there are hints that he was advised to lay off because his union did not want to damage its relationship with people on the council.

It seems unlikely that the council has heard the last of this affair. The curtain of damning paper still flutters in the cobbler’s informative window, and even in the party itself there are voices saying “enough”. Joe Anderson, a senior Labour councillor and twice mayor of Durham, told me: “There’s people at the town hall caused all this and still working there. I went to school with some of them and Mac was left on his own to deal with this muck. What they did to him was filthy. I can tell them this: I’ve been a councillor for 28 years and I’ve got a big dossier in a safe place. When I pack it in, I’m going to let it all out.”

As for Martin, he is standing as an independent city councillor next year and is looking forward to the access he will get to official files.

“There are a lot of people in Durham who basically think the council’s let them down,” he says. “They’re that frightened the way the council’s run things, they’ll not speak up, and I’ve been a sort of outlet for them. It’s given people a lot of hope and courage. They are coming forward and standing up to be counted.”