Sir David Serpell: Able and influential civil servant

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The Independent Online

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.