Tiger in the tank – the story of the first female Secretary of State for Transport

On September 8th more than 350 people took part in the first of the ‘Gender on the Agenda’ events that UTG is sponsoring. A good indicator that this is an issue whose time has come. Meanwhile on October 9th a statue will be unveiled in Blackburn of former local MP, Barbara Castle, on what would have been her 111th birthday. Seems like a good time then to tell the story of Britain’s first female Secretary of State for Transport. Arguably the most significant and dynamic Secretary of State for Transport there has been. And the author of what was the largest piece of non-financial legislation since the war – the 1968 Transport Act.

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.

Government transport policy was a bought-and-paid-for mechanism for encouraging the growth of the motor industry. Terrace houses and steam engines weren’t beloved and desirable as they are now: they were an embarrassment. The car and lorry was in the ascendency (by 1966 the roads were carrying 90% of passenger mileage and 60% of freight ton mileage).

Meanwhile Britain’s Victorian railway had been worked to the bone during the war. Post-war it had to modernise as quickly as state funds would allow whilst taking a battering from road competition. By the early Sixties the railways were struggling with a mountain of debt and had fallen out of fashion compared with the liberation of the car and the open road. 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.

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.

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. In many ways the role played to Barbara Castle’s strengths. A gift for harnessing positive publicity in her favour – helpful in what can be a high profile Department. And a determination to craft the right solution to difficult and complex problems where the typical politician would have chosen the path of least resistance. She also realised that at Transport she had the opportunity to bring all her long held views on the need for a planned approach to the economy to fruition through the prism of one important element of Government policy.

Despite her reputation as the ‘red queen’ there was both pragmatism as well as 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.

The PTEs’ initial tasks included getting to grips with welding local bus services into integrated wholes and deciding what to do with the ailing rail networks they inherited. Tyne and Wear went for the radical option of converting their decrepit local heavy rail network into a new and integrated Tyne and Wear Metro. Merseyside utilised ‘loop and link’ tunnels in Liverpool to turn around its urban rail network. Greater Manchester had less luck in getting funding for a rail tunnel (the ‘Picc-Vicc’ tunnel) to link its southern and northern rail network- though ultimately the successful Manchester Metrolink tram network has proved to be a more than adequate alternative.

Castle complemented the creation of strategic city region transport bodies 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: the country had made its choice and an increase in private car use was inevitable. The original Beeching rail closure programme was largely allowed to play itself out – although she did pluck some routes from the inferno and set a floor for the network well above what was envisaged in the second Beeching report. There’s no doubt that we should now have a bigger rail network than we do now (some of the largest annual contractions of the network happened on her watch) but we could have had a lot smaller one if she hadn’t steadied the ship. And the railways decades long slow comeback also has its roots in her tenure.

She was also determined to make the roads safer. Just as sensible measures to reduce death, injury and risk on the roads now are drowned out by vitriol in the media and by boorish petrolheads so they were then. This included death threats which she turned to her political advantage (she made sure the press got pictures of her going to the pub with her husband and the newly assigned detective on tow). She persevered (naturally) and speed limits, breathalysers and seat belts were the result. 

The 1968 Transport Act was where it was all meant to come together (and mostly did). A grand design for an all encompassing new integrated transport policy. A policy that would accommodate the reality of growing demand for car ownership and use (whilst improving road safety), rescue and revive public transport, pave the way for traffic restrain and integrated networks in urban areas as well as tidy up a host of other transport miscellany (from the canal network to the safeguarding of historic transport relics). She fought to keep as much of her vision intact as she could: the new Act required a record-breaking 45 committee sittings and faced considerable parliamentary opposition (Enoch Powell described the Bill as ‘evil’). 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 through a new system of licencing for lorries which was felled by the road haulage industry and its unions (thanks lads).

So what’s the lessons for today for anyone in with clout in transport and who wants to do something with that clout? 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 it is to heed these words of hers: “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

A brochure on the story of Barbara Castle and the 1968 Transport Act can be downloaded here: https://www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/types/documents/barbara-castle-and-story-1968-transport-act

A PDF of this article can be downloaded here: https://www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/types/documents/passenger-transport-article-issue-249

Be like Rotterdam and ‘make it happen’

The planet is in danger. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’ – we need to act now

“The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area for which observational data are sufficient for trend analysis (high confidence) and human-induced climate change is likely the main driver.” Climate Change 2021 : The Physical Science Basis, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Get off your train (powered by renewable energy – because they all are) at the modernised Rotterdam Centraal station. Turn north out of the station (crossing the river of cyclists) and turn right. Close by you will find a public square with space for ball games. Much of the square is recessed, because that way the square can hold and store 1.7 million litres of water in a storm. The rain may fall fast but the water collects slowly in the square and then can be slowly released into the groundwater and nearby canal, thus reducing the risk of flash flooding.

Circle round the station and head down into the underground car park. It isn’t obvious but above you is an enormous water storage tank – its construction integral to the wider station rebuilding project. Again designed to hold rainwater to slow its release and reduce the risk of flooding when the hard rain falls.

Keep exploring the immediate vicinity of the station and you will find watercourses that were underground but are now open to the sky, tram lines set in a carpet of green and urban farms (ground level and on rooftops).

Organising principle

Targets, visions, speeches, declarations: the planet is in danger – we must act now. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’, displacement activities. International, national, regional, local, sectoral targets that don’t link up with each other. Hanging wires. On the kind of timescales we need to work on to limit the scale of climate damage what really matters is not what declarations an organisation has signed but what staff do when they go to work on Monday morning. Is it contributing to decarbonisation – or is it not?

The key challenge now of decarbonisation is not Extinction Rebellion finding ever more sensational ways of stopping buses and trams from moving in city centres, or delivering more earnest speeches. It’s organisational strategy and management, because the need to decarbonise is no longer a debating point, it’s a practical challenge. And for national and local government in particular it’s a very complex challenge: a three dimensional game of chess.

The first of the three dimensions is sectoral. The big three carbon generators are energy production, transport and the built environment. Carbon emissions from energy have fallen rapidly, transport is the worst offender at present (but there is some kind of plan) and then there’s the built environment (where the plan is sketchy to say the least). The clock is ticking so we need to move across all the sectors simultaneously and in sync. Like Rotterdam does – but also like Islington, which has sourced waste heat from the underground to heat council estates. Or Leeds, which put in the piping for district heating at the same time as making the city centre roads that sit on top of them favour active travel, buses and trees. You can find further practical examples that link transport and energy, as well as transport and the decarbonisation and adaptation of the built environment in our ‘Making the connections on climate’ report.

The second dimension is temporal. Some things you can do quickly and relatively easily on carbon reduction (replacing old buses with zero emission buses) and some things will take time and are hard (decarbonising the existing built environment). But if you don’t start on the hard stuff now then inevitably it isn’t going to happen in time. We need to get carbon emissions down as soon as possible so it would also be wrong not to crack on with the easier stuff. And different actions have different costs attached – some of which will fall over time (though only if somebody else invests in them when they are expensive so that unit costs can come down for everybody else). So given finite resources how do you get the sequencing right?

The third dimension is the balance between taking measures to decarbonise what an organisation is doing now and reducing the impacts of the carbon that is already in the sky. For example, do you use your land holdings and roof space to generate renewable energy through turbines or solar panels?

Or do you use it for making your city spongier and cooler through urban drainage systems and more greenery?

Winning this three dimensional game of chess is the challenge of the age. It means decarbonisation has to become everyone’s job within an organisation (as Covid was). It means working across disciplines and departmental boundaries and budgets. All this set against finite resources and the danger that if you touch too many public raw nerves then the backlash could set you back by years we don’t have.

Putting the money where the mouth is

As well as reorganising around the climate imperative, organisations will need to put their money where their mouth is.

The most important part of any organisation’s plans and strategies is not the vision at the front – it’s the annex at the back (which shows what the money is actually being spent on). And the annexes at the back on transport haven’t been changing fast enough. There are still too many road schemes in them and not enough roadside gardens.

Meanwhile, car use is too cheap and public transport use is too expensive. As long as this mismatch persists we are in danger of putting more subsidy into public transport just to keep it in the game. Not winning the game, just losing the game more slowly.

The way forward is for national and local government to find the opportunities where they can to level up the score between the car and public transport – which in turn needs to find a new and more attractive equilibrium on fares (lower and simpler than they are now).

A crunch is coming

The forthcoming multi-year spending review will be a key test of whether government is putting its money where its mouth is on decarbonisation. In previous spending reviews the government more widely has not treated transport as a protected department but within its beleaguered budget intercity road and rail spend has been given a degree of protection not afforded to local transport. However, it’s not credible in any way, shape or form to continue to give priority to a bloated £27bn national road programme which will pump yet more traffic into cities (which have tough air quality and climate goals to achieve) and stimulate more car dependent sprawl around junctions.

This is money which is being squandered at the same time as active travel and bus strategies have set out ambitious aspirations for delivering everything which the national road programme won’t do – reduce pollution and carbon, less social exclusion and fewer death and injuries on the roads. And although the £3bn promised for transformational bus funding sounds a lot – if you subtract what’s been spent already and then divide what’s left by three years, then by capital and revenue, and then by 79 local transport authorities – then it won’t come even close to the magnitude of what the bus strategy rightly envisages.

Utopias and dystopias

The strange thing about the moment we find ourselves in, at a time when we face a dystopian threat at a global level, is that the most practical thing we can do is be inspired by what might be seen as utopian ideals; greener cities, public transport as a universal service. But only if we organise ourselves methodically and adopt the slogan of the City of Rotterdam: ‘Make it Happen’.

Jonathan Bray, Director, Urban Transport Group.

A pdf of this article is available to download here.

What the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport

Here are five key takeaways, based on an initial run through, of what the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport.

1. It accelerates the shift in tone and emphasis in urban transport policy and delivery towards active travel and public transport and makes moves to lock this in (in a quantifiable way) through resuscitating previously out of favour Local Transport Plans (LTPs) as the vehicle for doing so. So ‘LTPs will…need to set out how local areas will deliver ambitious quantifiable carbon reductions in transport.’

This will be part of a wider pincer movement through consolidation of local transport funding. Importantly, the plan states: ‘For future local transport funding, we will transition to a state where this is conditional on local areas being able to demonstrate how they will reduce emissions over a portfolio of transport investments through LTPs, which will become a focus of engagement between central and local government about future funding.’  

A further element underpinning this will be a green shift in the guidance and rules on how schemes are appraised. Particularly interesting is that it signals a desire to  move away from a ‘predict and provide’ approach to transport planning towards planning that starts from the outcomes communities want to achieve and providing the transport solutions to deliver those (‘vision and validate’). This would be a ‘revolution in the head’ for transport planning if it’s followed through on.

2. The ambitions for world class cycling infrastructure everywhere and a big shift to bus (with more, cheaper and greener services everywhere) are what we want too. The Government has also put money behind the bar for more spending on both (£5 billion in total). This sounds a lot and is a lot. But given the scale of the ambition it won’t be enough – especially on bus where the starting point is declining patronage and services and high fares.

So all eyes on the multi-year spending review in the Autumn. If DfT loses out to other Gov departments, and if local transport loses out to other parts of the DfT (as it did in the last spending review) then buses and active travel provision can still improve but not at the pace or scale necessary to meet the objectives of the TDP.

3. Tech optimism and tech fixes are preferred to hard decisions. We can have our cake (more travel, more roads and more flights) and eat it too (by decarbonising everything that moves). For urban transport one hard decision that is dodged is around the relative cost of motoring and public transport.

The cold hard stats show the relative cost of public transport has been rising fast compared with the cost of motoring in recent years. Although there is talk in the Plan about cheaper bus fares, there is only a brief veiled reference on the other side of the equation – vehicle taxation – where it says: ‘we will need to ensure that the tax system encourages the uptake of EVs and that revenue from motoring taxes keeps pace with this change, to ensure we can continue to fund the first-class public services and infrastructure that people and families across the UK expect.’

Of course it is also right that we do press ahead and at pace on the decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets – and solid progress is being made. However, it’s disappointing that the approach to decarbonising vehicle fleets is still modally divided, focussed on the vehicles rather than how we get sufficient green energy to where it needs to be to power those vehicles.

It also doesn’t recognise sufficiently that if all urban vehicles (buses, vans, fire engines, cars) are to be zero emission – and therefore have access to the green power they need – then city regions need to be at the top table when decisions are being made about how to make all this happen.

4. The bloated £27bn national roads programme which is set to pump more and more traffic into urban areas looks increasingly vulnerable. Gone is all the macho rhetoric about ‘biggest road building programme since the Romans’ and in comes ‘nothing to see here’ – it’s all about enhancements, renewals, tree planting and cycle lanes. The TDP says there will be a review but is cagey on the detail. It could and should be the beginning of a more common sense approach to the use of the £27 billion in a climate crisis.

5. The car is king in terms of journey share but in the UK occupancy rates are low. So the maths says if you increase car occupancy, even by a small percentage, you can make a significant cut in carbon emissions. The TDP signals that it gets this and that more needs to be done to make this happen but recognises that more thinking needs to be done on how.

The TDP could be the start of a process of bringing vehicle sharing from the margins to a more central position in transport policy which is positive. However it misses a trick on this (and more widely on other topics in the Plan including decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets) on how the public sector (education, healthcare, local government and so on) could be taking more of a lead. After all this is a lever that the Government should more easily be able to pull.

All in all, the TDP should perhaps be seen as the latest stage (and a consolidation of recent progress) of a journey for greening urban transport policy which had been long overdue, but remarkably rapid once it got underway. For example, it’s hard to believe now but a decade ago cycling was at the far margins of urban transport policy and investment priorities. It couldn’t have been any more fringe. But now it’s front and centre.

The TDP also sets the stage for the tougher decisions that are still to come – most notably on taxation and pricing of travel, and on how the totality of available transport funding is prioritised.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group