HC Deb 10 February 1992 vol 203 cc657-778 3.33 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government's future policy on the provision of motorway services.

Development of the motorway network over the past 30 or so years has brought significant benefits to motorists. Those benefits have been seen most recently in the opening of the final sections of the M25, M40 and M20, and will continue in future with the completion of other motorway projects, such as the upgrading to motorway standard of the A1 between the M25 and Tyneside and the A74 from Glasgow to Carlisle.

Motorway service areas in England have been centrally planned and controlled since the inception of the motorway network. That approach has produced a standardised pattern of relatively large service areas at intervals of about 30 miles operated by very few catering companies. Provision of MSAs—motorway service areas —has failed to keep pace with the development of new motorways. Most notably, there are at present no services on the 200-mile motorway route between Folkestone and Birmingham.

We announced in the citizens charter that a complete reform in the current arrangements was necessary. I am today publishing a consultation document which proposes a new way forward. The aim is for more MSAs where they are necessary and a better choice. A copy of the consultation document has been placed in the Library. It has been widely circulated among existing and prospective operators, local planning authorities, and motorists' and consumer organisations. It invites comments by 20 March on the application of the proposed policy in Scotland and Wales, as in England.

The main feature of our proposals is that the Department of Transport should no longer decide the location of MSAs and should no longer own MSA sites. In future, sites would be identified and acquired by private initiative in the same way as are other desirable developments.

In seeking generally to reduce bureaucratic involvement in the provision of motorway service areas, I am consulting on the degree of deregulation to be adopted. There are two broad options. Under the first, my Department would continue to require that certain minimum standards should continue to be met in order to ensure certain facilities that the market might not otherwise provide. Examples might be minimum hours of opening—whether 24 hours or less; or a requirement that a certain number of parking places for lorries should be available; or a requirement that lavatories, telephones and parking should be freely accessible to the public. That list is not exhaustive. Such requirements could be enforced by way of a combination of planning conditions and the Department's control of access to and signing from the motorway. That is very similar to the system that has been followed successfully in Wales where there are, at present, five MSAs—including one under construction—on the 75 or so miles of the M4 in Wales.

Under the second option my Department would go further and withdraw from all controls over what was provided at MSAs. Its only concerns would be to ensure that the access arrangements proposed were safe and that arrangements had been made for the developer to meet the cost of any highway improvements required. We would also expect, under this option, to allow the operators of suitable off-line sites, as well as those on the motorway, to seek signing. The number and frequency of MSAs, and the level and range of services that each provided, would be decided by the market, as with other developments. That would lead to the greatest possible diversity and competition and so would offer the motorist the widest choice.

Under either option, developers would require planning permission in the normal way. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will issue planning policy guidance to local authorities on the factors bearing on consideration of proposed motorway services developments. Also, to protect the efficiency of motorways as high-speed through-routes for long distance traffic, a general prohibition on new MSA accesses at less than 10-mile intervals is proposed. That is less than the current assumption of 30 miles and may lead to proposals for smaller MSAs which would be more environmentally acceptable. The new arrangements that we propose will have implications for existing MSAs. They will also affect schemes which my Department has in the pipeline.

For the 44 existing MSAs in England, I propose, unless I am persuaded otherwise after consultation, that the Department should dispose of its leases to existing operators, enabling them to compete on equal terms with new facilities brought forward under the new deregulated regime.

Some new sites in the pipeline are well advanced and will be taken forward under broadly the existing arrangements. This will he the quickest way of providing these much-needed services. On other stretches of motorway, although the Department has done preliminary work in planning for services, we will now expect the private sector to take the opportunity to fill the gaps.

The proposals that I am launching today flow from commitments made in the citizens charter. We said then that our aim was to improve the rate of provision and number of MSAs, and so enhance consumer choice. I am convinced that this can best be achieved by lifting Government regulation and encouraging private enterprise into this important market.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

This is yet another statement in the continuing public relations rhetoric concerning the citizens charter and is intended to produce motorway service stations which, on some stretches of motorway such as the M40, are clearly needed because none presently exists.

The statement is also born out of the Prime Minister's experience at the Happy Eater some months ago when he decided to demand more service stations such as the Happy Eater and instructed the Secretary of State for Transport to provide plans for them. As I understand it, the Secretary of State provided the plan, but it was vetoed by his colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment on planning grounds. Once again, he overruled the Department of Transport on transport matters. The statement represents a further victory over transport for the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The matter is to be dealt with in a review, and as the review will be completed by 20 March, I as the Secretary of State will not accept—[Interruption.]—I will not accept the proposals which are a licence to the developers to exploit the green belt.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the provision of motorway stations through a deregulated system will mean handing over control to the developers—with planning decisions and the passing of hundreds of thousands of pounds to influence those planning decisions —and will produce a number of empty sites where service stations are found to be commercially viable, as we witness with petrol stations? There will be massive development sites in our most attractive green belt areas, and that concerns many people.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House, under whatever system he considers, that the increasing practice, especially of the Happy Eaters, to deny large lorries access to their sites and to the refreshment facilities necessary for tired drivers will not continue and that minimum standards will include good standards for our heavy vehicles?

In this review, will the Secretary of State consider the other citizens charter promise to reduce the number of cones on our motorways in light of the report by the Select Committee on Transport that the number of cones on our motorways can be expected to double in the next two years due to the lack of maintenance of our road programme?

The statement represents a complete handing-over of development rights to the developers for the exploitation of the beautiful areas around our motorways. I assure the House that, as next Secretary of State, I will not allow that to take place.

Mr. Rifkind

I was delighted to see that the hon. Gentleman was so unconvinced by his picture of himself as the next Secretary of State that he could not present the proposal with a straight face. We all share his merriment in contemplating that matter.

I was greatly interested by the hon. Gentleman's denunciation of our proposals for deregulation which, he said, represent a hand-over of the public interest to the developers. Is he suggesting, therefore, that the system that has existed in Wales for a number of years has been anything other than a success? Is he suggesting that the future Labour Government in which he proposes to have such an important and honourable position will reverse the situation in Wales? Does he not realise that the Welsh experience is worth following?

When the hon. Gentleman said that the Department of the Environment was unhappy with our proposals, he introduced the realm of fantasy into the issue because his comment bears no relation to the events. No such veto took place at any time. He is living in a world of his own.

The hon. Gentleman asked about cones on motorways. As part of the citizens charter proposals, the lane rental scheme, which is leading to significant reductions in the use of cones, is being extended to 60 per cent. of all motorway contracts. In one respect, the hon. Gentleman's policy would lead to the use of fewer cones because he does not propose to build any more motorways; no doubt fewer cones would be part of the consequence of his policy.

The hon. Gentleman appears to be complacent about the existing arrangements, which have led to insufficient motorway service areas, and he has not identified one respect in which a Labour Government would find alternative means of ensuring that motorists received the services to which they were entitled.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members will see from the Order Paper that we have a busy day ahead of us. I shall allow questions on the statement to continue for 30 minutes, then we must move on. If questions are brief, I shall be able to call all those hon. Members who have been rising.

Sir Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the great undesirability of building motorway service areas in places such as Stokenchurch, on the M40, given that long discussions have already proved conclusively that undesirability?

Mr. Rifkind

It is accepted that, under any scheme, it is necessary for applicants to seek planning permission and, obviously, the Secretary of State for the Environment takes the ultimate decision on the planning aspects of any proposal, which is only right and proper.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

We welcome the statement because we feel that smaller units have been needed for a long time and now we are to get them. The Secretary of State mentioned 20 March. That allows a very short time—

Mr. Prescott

He will not be in office after that.

Mr. Fearn

Perhaps so. That seems to be a very short time to allow for negotiations between consumer organisations and others, and those who own the motorway stations.

What will happen about signposting? People will be turning off motorways to smaller units and may well find that they provide only eating places and lavatories but no petrol. That is most important. Women driving on their own will have certain reservations about turning off to small units—[Interruption.] I am talking about safety measures here—if they are not sure of getting petrol there.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for our proposals. Smaller motorway service areas will be less environmentally controversial and will be more likely to be acceptable to the public as a whole as well as to motorists. The smaller service areas will almost invariably provide petrol for the driver: after all, that will be their main raison d'etre and source of income. If a motorway service area did not provide the full range of services, it would be appropriate for that to be indicated on the signs so that motorists would be aware of the services that they could expect to find.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that two welcome conclusions might be drawn from his statement? If the conditions that he now suggests had applied, we should not have had to wait 16 years, with still not a sod turned towards the first motorway service area on the M11, and market-driven operators would be more likely to produce smaller, more environmentally friendly schemes than that imposed by his Department upon my constituents at Birchanger.

Mr. Rifkind

Part of the thinking behind the proposals is that, the fewer motorway service areas there are, the larger the projects are likely to be, and in the past that has inevitably led to some very controversial proposals which have been strongly resisted in various localities. I believe that it is now a more commonly held view that the proposals that we are advancing are likely to be more environmentally acceptable.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

Does the Secretary of State accept that some of us were surprised at the way in which he extolled the virtues of service areas along the M4? Does he remember that, until 1991, there was not a single service station between the Aust services near the Severn bridge—which is in England—and the Sarn services near Bridgend, well over 40 miles away, and that, for the first five years of its life, when one reached the Sarn services, one found that the only places for eating and drinking were Nissen huts scattered on a muddy patch? I hope that the wonderful service areas that he has just announced will not be like that for the first five years of their life.

Mr. Rifkind

The Welsh experience appears to be that, within the 75 miles of motorway, four motorway service areas are already available and a fifth is being made available at the moment. That is an important achievement and it shows that the approach being pursued in that part of the country appears to have been more able than that applied elsewhere at providing the services that motorists require.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take a little time to study the service area at Tebay on the M6 in my constituency? After the big groups expressed no interest in the 1960s, a local group developed motorway services there. As a result, that service area now employs more than 150 people, almost exactly the same number that Tebay used to employ on the railways during the golden days of the railways. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment sends his circular to planning authorities, will my right hon. and learned Friend ask him to draw to their attention the dramatic effect on local employment that service areas can have in upland areas of low population where jobs are not very plentiful?

Mr. Rifkind

I applaud what has been achieved in the Tebay service area; and my right hon. Friend is right to say that lessons from that experience may be learned in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Department of Transport is to blame for the lack of services on the M11? Will service stations be built on green belt land? If they are, he will find that a series of beefburger bills on the motorway will not be very appetising for motorists.

Mr. Rifkind

The normal planning rules will apply for any proposal affecting the green belt, and that is very important. The main reasons for delays have been, in part, the public inquiries required for planning applications, the disputes in respect of compulsory purchase powers sought by the Department and a number of fruitless legal challenges to the way in which the Department carried out its responsibilities. At least two of those three causes of delay would no longer apply under the proposals that I have outlined today.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the news about deregulation will be warmly greeted in Toddington service station on the M1, one of the oldest service stations in the country and one of the busiest, on the basis that the new opportunity will increase jobs in the area? Will he say something about access to motorway service stations and whether he might relax the rule that they can be approached only from the motorway itself, because there could be opportunities for further development behind stations for sporting and leisure facilities for people who are not necessarily travelling on the motorway?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the proposals. The prime function and raison d'etre of motorway service areas has been the provision of services to the travelling public. We would be reluctant to encourage large amounts of traffic to seek access to a motorway service area as that might result in additional congestion. However, each proposal must be considered on its own merit to discover whether there are particular circumstances which might justify departing from that general approach.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

It is a nightmare scenario to imagine the country up to its ears in citizens charters with wall-to-wall Happy Eaters. Did I gather from what the Secretary of State said that local authorities will be required to give the initial planning consent, not his Department? Will he tell us how many new outlets he envisages being in situ in the next five years —assuming, of course, that the new Labour Secretary of State does not end the scheme?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman added a rather important qualification at the end of his question. The normal planning rules continue to apply. Therefore, any application for a motorway service area must go to the planning authorities and follow the normal planning procedures. That side does not change. The change is the ending of disputes with regard to the compulsory purchase powers sought by the Department and the various unsuccessful legal challenges which have delayed progress enormously in some projects.

It would be contrary to the philosophy behind my statement for me to indicate the number of motorway service areas. That will be determined in the light of the needs of motorists as identified by the potential developers of those motorway service areas.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

In freeing up refreshment areas along motorways, will my right hon. and learned Friend give added impetus to the private building of motorways and indeed even the installation of toll gates on motorways that already exist, such as the M40, which is ideally suited to that?

Mr. Rifkind

We have no proposals to introduce tolls on existing motorways. We have been prepared to consider the private financing of certain new road projects, of which the Birmingham northern relief road is the most important to come forward so far.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

With the deregulation of motorway service areas, and with the opening up to private enterprise and competition, may I have an absolute assurance from the Secretary of State that there are no plans to allow service areas to sell alcohol in any form?

Mr. Rifkind

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have no intention of relaxing the ban on alcohol at all motorway service areas, either now or in the future.

Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is a tremendous problem at the Charnock Richard service station in my constituency regarding access to and exit from it by traffic that is not on the motorway? Does he accept that there is a tremendous need for direct access? Service area operators want direct access in terms of sales of goods and petrol. Contrary to what my right hon. and learned Friend said to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), such access would ease congestion, particularly on minor roads. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look most carefully at that important point?

Mr. Rifkind

I shall certainly do so. I tried to acknowledge to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) that alternative access to a motorway service area might be appropriate in some circumstances. Clearly, their primary purpose is to serve users of the motorway, but if local circumstances justify additional access without causing congestion or road safety problems, it would obviously be perverse to prevent that if no difficulties were caused by a provision of that kind.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the Secretary of State list the four sites of what he has described as the four operating centres in Wales? As his statement, like most of the citizens charter, is hype and transparent general election propaganda, will today's statement be financed by Conservative central office?

Mr. Rifkind

I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's final comment. Either he believes that it is desirable to have easier and quicker provision of motorway service areas for the needs of the travelling motorist or he does not. I should have thought that his own constituents would see it as a desirable announcement because it is likely to provide the facilities that the motorist so anxiously needs. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Labour party does not believe that, for example, for the 200 miles between Folkestone and Birmingham there should continue to be no motorway service areas? Is that what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to suggest to his constituents?

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

While I welcome freeing up the development of motorway service stations, does my right hon and learned Friend agree that it is absolutely essential at this early stage in the debate to make the point that, so far, the development of petrol stations along normal roads in this country has been visually very obtrusive and unattractive? Does he also agree that, when new stations are being developed on motorways, it is vital that the planning authorities place heavy emphasis on making them environmentally superior to what was built before?

Mr. Rifkind

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There are one or two motorway services which make a contribution to improving the landscape of the locality, but that is the exception and not the rule. It should be possible, with a combination of sensitive design and good architectural thought, to bring forward developments that not only meet the needs of the motorist but do so in a way that is sympathetic to the environment in which such facilities are to be found.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The Minister for Roads and Traffic, who is sitting next to the Secretary of State, will recollect that on 5 February he sent me a courteous and considered response to a six-page, tightly argued article by Professor James Horne, professor of psychophysiology at Loughborough, who has studied microsleep and the phenomenon of driving without awareness. Does the Secretary of State accept that those are very important matters for driving on motorways, particularly on motorways such as the M9, which he and I know well? What conclusions for both those studies and indeed the studies of driver behaviour that his Department set in train in 1986 are to be used in relation to making motorway service areas better from the point of view of traffic accidents, very often late at night?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Precisely those considerations lead to the need for easy availability of motorway service areas. Sometimes drivers are driving for many hours and for long distances on the motorways. It is important that they should not be required to leave the motorway to have a short rest or get refreshment. Unfortunately, that has been a necessity in some parts of the country. The proposals have been brought forward to deal with that sort of problem.

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his statement will be welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and by people in my constituency who have fought strongly against the Department of Transport's proposal to build a 50-acre service station at Arley, in Cheshire, which is in the middle of the green belt? Could he give an assurance that any scheme put forward by the private sector would tend to be in a more environmentally friendly site and would not be of such a monstrous size?

Mr. Rifkind

Clearly, any proposal which might be put forward by the private sector would have to be subject to all the rigours of the planning system and would be tested against proper criteria. It is likely that in future proposals will be for developments of a more modest size. As a result of that change, at least some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members are less likely to occur.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

As my right hon. and learned Friend may know, I am a regular user of the M40 and I look forward immensely to some form of relief coming to the motorist during the next few months. Can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether any developer who might wish to invest in a motorway rest area be obliged to develop on both sides of the motorway? I can foresee the opportunity to develop a small, modest site on just one side which would be attractive to the motor car user without having to indulge in the huge expenditure necessary to develop an exact replica on the other side.

Mr. Rifkind

There are already some examples of motorway service areas on one side of the road only. Inherent in the proposals for greater flexibility is the assumption that there may be proposals of the kind that my hon. Friend referred to, which may make sense and may therefore be more easily acceptable to the local community than a proposal with more serious environmental implications because of its sheer scale. Flexibility is inherent in our approach and therefore I am happy to respond positively to my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Bob. Dunn (Dartford)

If the proposals put forward by the Secretary of State today lead to the introduction of discreetly fashioned motorway service areas along the southbound carriageway of the M25, I shall welcome them. Will he confirm that the introduction of more competition into the provision of motorway service areas will lead to better quality service and lower prices for the consumer? My constituents, like his, probably object to being ripped off by the very high prices charged by some providers.

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, there has been concern among many motorists who feel that inadequate choice is available to them. To provide that choice also requires the provision of the relevant information for the motorist on the motorway determining which service area to use, who should be aware of the differing facilities which might be available and of the cost likely to be inherent in them. I believe that our approach will be more likely to meet the objectives that my hon. Friend has rightly referred to.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, as I have to drive home 250 miles every Thursday night to my constituency, I would appreciate greatly if more facilities were available? Will he ensure that every motorway service station, however small, has facilities for disabled people? That is an absolute must, wherever they may be. Does he not think that it is a remarkable reflection on the Labour party's cavalier attitude to keeping promises that the shadow Secretary of State for Transport finds it reprehensible that we should be keeping ours?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the needs of the disabled. It would be highly desirable that all motorway service areas should have proper facilities to meet the requirements of persons in that category.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

If my right hon. and learned Friend thinks it desirable, may I press him to consult the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee which hopes to persuade him that it is essential for every motorway service area to have facilities for disabled people?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept the point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who spoke for the Opposition, that cars are profitable for motorway service area operators but that lorries are unprofitable? A power of direction will be necessary because lorry drivers are required to stop and if they do not find provision on the motorway they will go off them, which in itself is undesirable.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, during consultation, people may wish to consider the contrast in the flows of traffic on the M4 in Wales and those, for example, on the M1 and the M25? Does he accept that the citizens charter means that citizens may lose £10 million for each service area on motorways where the operators are in competition and bidding up? It is likely that that competition will upset people in every thicket, field and green-belt area, where it is difficult to get permission to build a road in the first place. That is likely to cause more rather than less trouble for Members of Parliament.

Mr. Rifkind

I do not agree with my hon. Friend's final observation. However, his earlier remarks are highly relevant because the document offers two possible options for different degrees of future involvement by the Department of Transport. I am anxious to hear comments on whether 24-hour access, free lavatories and so on should be available at every motorway service area or whether their provision should be subject to the proposals of the developer and influenced by normal planning criteria only. Important consequences follow, depending on the option chosen. I want to hear comments about that from the public and from interested parties before reaching a conclusion.

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