A history of the Government Car Service

Project details

Full project title: A history of the Government Car Service

Sponsor: Government Car and Despatch Agency

Project manager and researcher: Professor Glenn Lyons

Principal researcher/author: Dr Geoff Dudley

Start date: September 2006

Finish date: October 2007

Project summary

The Government Car Service (GCS) (which provides transport for UK Ministers and officials) celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2006, and the Government Car and Despatch Agency (of which GCS forms a part) commissioned an official history to be written. GCS is a unique body, where a close bond often develops between Ministers and their drivers. This means that the often intriguing history of GCS can only be properly understood by placing it in its wider political and social context. However, despite the key 'insider' status of GCS, there is also a paradox in that for much of its history the Service has struggled to find a strong and independent organisational identity.

Although governments have valued the individual service that GCS provides, as an organisation it has often been overlooked and taken for granted, and on occasions has even struggled to survive. Only in the past decade, as the largest component part of the Executive Agency GCDA, has it been able to assert itself, and to find organisational and financial stability.

The material for the book has now been completed and publication options are being considered. A paper based upon the work for this book is being presented at the 2008 Universities Transport Study Group Conference. The abstract of the paper is provided below:

From 'Two Jags' to the Prius: Shifting Policy Agendas and the Government Car Service
Geoff Dudley

As the British government's flagship transport organisation, the Government Car Service (GCS)has carried Ministers and officials since 1946.In doing so,it provides a unique indicator of shifting policy priorities and preoccupations. A particular feature here is the change in the vehicle purchasing policy from criteria governed for many years by considerations of 'Buy British,' to objectives dominated by the environmental agenda. Intriguingly, the environmental criteria themselves have shifted significantly in recent years, reflecting fresh perceptions of the principal problems to be addressed.

For several decades, the mainstays of the GCS fleet were cars manufactured by British Leyland (later Rover). From 1975-87, BL itself was state owned, so that government Ministers at times became unofficial salespeople for the Company's cars. The decline of Rover, leading to its demise in 2005, combined with the phenomenon of the globalisation of vehicle manufacture, progressively weakened the 'Buy British' GCS policy. Instead, the environmental agenda has come to dominate GCS. The shift is perhaps best symblised politically by criticism aimed at former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who acquired the nickname 'Two Jags' for his official and private use of large UK manufactured Jaguar cars, despite advocating greater public transport use as part of an integrated transport strategy.

In the 1990s, GCS vehicle purchasing policy reflected government priorities for improving air quality, and the emphasis was on using alternative technologies such as Liquid Petroleum Gas. Over time, however, it was discoverd that these vehicles were not easy to supply and service. More recently, the GCS emphasis has switched to climate change objectives that reflect a government preoccupation with reducing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. This shift is illustrated particularly by the rapid growth in the GCS fleet of the hybrid electric-petrol Toyota Prius, manufactured in Japan.