Sir David Serpell: Able and influential civil servant

David Serpell was one of the most influential civil servants of his generation, in an era when civil servants wielded more power and influence than, alas, is the case today.

In the early 1960s, when I was a very new member of the Public Accounts Committee, the outgoing chairman, Harold Wilson, told me that the Deputy at the Department of Transport coming before the committee, David Serpell, was an extremely able man. It showed. Serpell and his then superior Sir Thomas Padmore, a quietly spoken, talented musician, had no hesitation in providing unpalatable truths and were unusually frank about the shortcomings of themselves and their department.

Serpell was a very attractive witness. One felt that he really cared. Many years later, I came into contact with him again in his new incarnation as Chairman of the Nature Conservancy, 1973-77. It is not fanciful to say that he was an ecologist before most of the rest of us and a green a quarter of a century before it became fashionable.

Born in 1911, Serpell was brought up in a strict religious environment in Plymouth where he went to Plymouth College, though it is not clear whether, like his friend Tony Crosland's, his family were of the Plymouth Brethren. On a scholarship, Serpell went to Exeter College, Oxford, which in 1992 bestowed an honorary fellowship on him, to his delight. He also went to universities abroad, at Toulouse and then to Syracuse University, New York.

Coming high in the Civil Service exam, he was allocated in 1937 to the Imperial Economic Committee and then to the Ministry of Food, where he was chosen by the incoming minister Gwilym Lloyd George, as his Private Secretary. On Lloyd George's promotion to become Minister of Fuel and Power, Serpell went with him. He told me that on a number of occasions he had met Lloyd George's father, David, the former prime minister, and had been spellbound by him in great old age.

Serpell's first serious Civil Service promotion was in 1954 when he became Under-Secretary at the Treasury, working directly to Rab Butler on matters of public expenditure and particularly in relation to the nationalised industries. This was a stepping stone to the Deputy Secretary-ship at the Ministry of Transport in 1960.

His work was highly thought-of by Tom Fraser, Harold Wilson's first Minister of Transport. Many of the good things which are attributed to a particular minister are indeed the work of his predecessor and Serpell had given imaginative advice on railways to Ernest Marples which was much appreciated by Fraser when he entered the department. (Barbara Castle, in turn, when she became Minister of Transport, gained much of the credit from what Fraser, and before him Serpell and Padmore, along with Marples, had done).

During the time of the Labour government, Serpell was Second Secretary at the Board of Trade working for Douglas Jay. Back to the Treasury in 1968 he was in the thick of the financial consequences of the Labour government's critical statement of 20 July 1966, and subsequently all the argument about devaluation. I understand that Serpell himself advised that we should bite the bullet and face devaluation some months before it happened.

In 1968 he became Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport with the unenviable task of implementing some of the recommendations which flowed from the Beeching Report. He was uncomfortable about this task because he was a believer in the environmental importance of railways. The former senior civil servant Sir George Moseley, who knew him in many capacities, described Serpell as "a tough Permanent Secretary. In the eyes of Civil Service Principals such as myself, he was a bit of a martinet, but he was able and ready to appreciate any job that had been well done by those who worked for him."

His last Civil Service post was as Permanent Secretary in the newly created Department of the Environment, from where he retired in 1972, becoming a member of the British Railways Board, 1974-82. Thus he was a natural to chair the review on railway finances which reported in 1983, recommending a severe reduction in the reach of the rail service. He regretted that his terms of reference were such that he had to stick to the economic implications, rather than give vent to his feeling that railway use was of service to the environment. Unfortunately, Serpell's report was ridiculed in some quarters for having suggested that the railway system in Scotland should end at Crianlarich, which, far from being a terminal metropolis, is a very small and remote town indeed, leading nowhere. His lacuna on Scottish geography was lampooned by the enemies of the report which had it been implemented in full would have given us a more healthy railway system. But governments tend to pick and choose what they want out of a report.

He was an effective chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council. As a member of the committee stage of the marathon 1980-81 Wildlife and Countryside Act I know how wise Serpell was in giving the benefit of his experience to any politician who cared to ask him.

Tam Dalyell

David Radford Serpell, civil servant: born Plymouth, Devon 10 November 1911; Private Secretary to the Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Food 1941-42; Principal Private Secretary to the Minister of Fuel and Power 1942-45; OBE 1944; CMG 1952; Under-Secretary, HM Treasury 1954-60, Second Secretary 1968; Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Transport 1960-63, Permanent Secretary 1968-70; CB 1962, KCB 1968; Second Secretary, Board of Trade 1963-66, Second Permanent Secretary 1966-68; Permanent Secretary, Department of the Environment 1970-72; member, British Railways Board 1974-82; Chairman, Nature Conservancy Council 1973-77; married first Ann Dooley (three sons; marriage dissolved), second Doris Farr (died 2004); died Strete, Devon 28 July 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with excess, cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies