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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.