Barbara Castle was the first woman to be secretary of state for transport. But was she also the best transport secretary Britain ever had?
This Thursday, it is 50 years to the day since Castle’s landmark Transport Act – at that time, the largest piece of non-financial legislation since the War – received Royal Assent. So it’s a good time to look at her legacy, and the relevance her work still has today.
First the context. In the mid-1960s, Britain was going through a crash transformation from muddling on with clapped out Victorian transport systems and urban forms, to full on consumer boom modernism. Towns and cities were being rebuilt along clean lines; tower blocks were reaching upwards; and the roads were getting wider.
Transport policy was treated as a bought-and-paid-for mechanism for encouraging the growth of the motor industry. Terrace houses and steam engines weren’t seen as cute and desirable as they are now: they were an embarrassment.
But at the same time there was carnage on the roads, 8,000 deaths a year – which is not surprising, when people could drink as much as they liked before driving as fast as they liked and with nothing to restrain them from hurtling through their own windscreen as a consequence.
On the railways, the Beeching axe was seen as just the start. Phase two would have butchered what was left – the East Coast Main Line would have gone from London to Newcastle and stopped there. Bus use was in free fall, and traffic congestion was on the rise.
And then, in 1966, came Barbara Castle.
Transport was a job she never wanted – after her first ministerial appointment at overseas development she was hoping for one of the top three Cabinet posts – but in the end transport was the job she enjoyed the most. Harold Wilson said he wanted a “tiger in the tank” of his transport policy and that’s what he got. There was both pragmatism and radicalism in what she did in her short time in the post.
On the radical side, she established Passenger Transport Executives for the major conurbations, whose job it would be produce master plans for transport in their areas, run local bus services and turn around the urban rail networks that had survived the Beeching era. With London Transport also now coming under the control of the Greater London Council for the first time, the city regions would have accountable transport authorities whose job it was to provide high quality and integrated public transport.
Castle complemented this by raising urban public transport investment, so that it was more on a par with roads, and providing more funding for bus services. She also established the concept of the ‘social railway’ – the principle that government can subsidise unprofitable railways where they bring wider social and economic benefits. The era saw a significant write off of BR debt, too, and much of the publicly owned canal network was saved for leisure use.
On the roads, Castle took what she saw as the pragmatic approach, accepting that acting as King Canute was not an option: an increase in private car use was inevitable. And the original Beeching rail closure programme was largely allowed to play itself out – although she did pluck some routes from destruction.
But she was determined to make the roads safer. Naturally she was opposed tooth and nail by the more extreme petrolheads of the day, but despite death threats – which she turned to her political advantage – she persevered. Speed limits, breathalysers and seat belts were the result.
Castle fought to keep as much of her vision intact as she could: the new act required a record-breaking 45 committee sittings. But she left transport before the process was completed, and her successor Richard Marsh was all too amenable to ditching what he could, including some radical proposals which would have kept more freight on rail.
So what’s the lessons for today? A stand out is that you need to go out there and relentlessly sell radical change: Castle always had her press people in for the key decisions, and led from the front on making the case. But perhaps more than anything ministers can learn from these words:
“There are great temptations to play safe, and then I think a slow moral corruption sets in... the higher you go, the more you’ve got to lose. It become easier to argue with yourself. And it can be a very tricky thing indeed, this. You need timing and you need judgement and you need courage.”
Jonathan Bray is the director of the Urban Transport Group. You can read more about the story of Barbara Castle and the 1968 Transport Act in the group’s recent brochure.