He was the most powerful man in County Durham until he was jailed for his part in a notorious corruption scandal.

Joe Willis looks back at the life of Andrew Cunningham.

IT is ironic that news of Andrew Cunningham’s death aged 100 has only just emerged.

Every other detail of the rise and fall of the former Durham County Council alderman – who died in June – was recorded in print almost immediately.

In 1974, Cunningham was jailed for five years, later reduced to four on appeal, for a corruption scandal which rocked Seventies Britain.

He had earlier pleaded guilty to receiving corrupt gifts and conspiring to commit corruption with architect John Poulson and T Dan Smith, former leader of Newcastle Council.

“Britain now couples corruption with the North-East,”

the judge at Leeds Crown Court told the three men.

Eighteen other people were convicted along with the trio, and many other prominent figures found their public careers at an end, most notably the deputy chairman of the Tory party, Reginald Maudling.

At the head of the pyramid of corruption was Poulson, with Smith and Cunningham acting as his “lieutenants”.

In return for holidays, and a salary for his wife, Freda, with whom he had three children, Cunningham, of Carrowmore Road, Chester-le-Street, used his position on the many public boards he sat on and the councils he could influence to steer contracts to the architect.

However, older newspaper clippings show that ten years earlier Cunningham had the region at his feet.

He entered local government in 1939 with Felling Urban Council, later becoming its youngest chairman.

In 1963, he was unanimously elected as chairman of Durham County Council – again becoming its youngest alderman at 51.

A year later, Cunningham became regional secretary of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (now GMB).

He went on to become regional chairman of the Labour Party and a member of its National Executive Committee, as well as chairman of Durham Police Authority, Northumbrian River Authority and the North-East Regional Airport Committee.

Three weeks after his release from prison in 1976, Cunningham caused further outrage when he sat down for tea with Prime Minister James Callaghan.

The meeting took place at the home of Cunningham’s son, Jack, then MP for Whitehaven.

Despite his convictions, Cunningham was not without his supporters.

Former Labour minister Lord George-Brown told the court he was “one of the outstandingly forthright, courageous, solid and loyal men I have met throughout my political life”.