Was Barbara Castle the best transport secretary Britain ever had?

Transport secretary Barbara Castle has fun with a new electric car in 1966. Image: Getty

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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.