Motorways (Service Stations)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th August 1966.

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6.35 a.m.

Photo of Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a number of questions concerning the service stations, and in particular the catering establishments within those service stations, on the motorways. These are problems which, I am very happy to say, can be stated briefly, but I also think it fair to say that they are problems of concern to a great many people which raise important issues of principle. I am also aware that the Parliamentary Secretary himself is interested in these problems, and I hope that he will take this opportunity to state the Government's intentions and proposals.

My attention was first drawn to these establishments in the usual way, namely, by having to use them as a motorist fairly regularly travelling on motorways. I was glad to see them set up and I was at first impressed as, I think, were most motorists with the planning which had gone into them, and with their scope. It seemed that every possible convenience was to be provided for motorists and that, if not every possible demand, every reasonable demand was to be met and catered for. Prices, it is true, were not low, but they were acceptable in the early stages.

However, it was not long before motorists noticed a deterioration in certain of these establishments; not in all, but in some of them. The shining new places began to look shabby, prices began to rise, service which had been good began to deteriorate, and things got worse in a general way. Up to a point, one could understand this deterioration. Nothing remains new for very long, and these establishments had, of necessity, been placed in areas where it was not easy to recruit staff. In some instances, proprietors would have a considerable expense in conveying staff over long distances, and they all had clearly to compete with another difficulty, namely, the great variation in levels of demand.

Peak demand is very heavy indeed, whereas in off-peak periods—such as the time of day at which I am raising this subject this morning—one naturally finds very little demand. Yet the proprietors have to maintain a service round the clock, and so one understood that, for that reason if for none other, a certain deterioration was inevitable. But I think that, in certain of the establishments, it went rather further than the inevitable. My own observations were soon noted by others, and early in my Parliamentary career I received letters about the sort of service which other motorists had found. This was highlighted by a number of letters which appeared in the Manchester Evening News. There was a banner headline on one occasion, "Must We Suffer This Café Service?" and this had a snowballing effect. I received even more letters. Some went into detail, but all commented on the same general point, namely, that the standards on the whole had declined.

Many of the correspondents pointed out that certain of these establishments maintained a high standard at times, while the service and standards generally declined at other times, and there was also a uniformity of opinion about rising prices in those commodities in which there is a big turnover, such as cups of tea, and things of that kind.

Following that I tabled a Parliamentary Question on 11th May, seeking to discover what machinery existed within the Ministry of Transport for exercising some form of supervision over the services provided in these establishments. I am still seeking that information, but, following that Question, the matter was taken up further in the Press. The Daily Mail, in particular, gave some prominence to the question, as a result of which I had further letters. Some were worrying in their implications. One was from a person who was responsible for conducting foreign businessmen round the country and was therefore part of our export business. In the course of his letter referring to his experiences in conducting these businessmen round and having to entertain them on the motorways, he said, I felt ashamed in front of foreign visitors and so on, at the standards they found, and particularly at the comparisons they made with places in other countries.

As a result of these letters I carried out an investigation myself. In a very short time I visited every motorway restaurant in this country. Hon. Members are often called upon to perform unusual tasks on behalf of the electorate, but the task of travelling 200 miles on motorways and eating sausage rolls and drinking cups of tea every 20 miles is not the pleasantest of them. I made a note of the various prices charged. In some places I found a high standard of service, but in others I did not. I do not apportion blame individually, because in part the differences may have been due to variations in the ease with which staff could be recruited and also to differences in the time of day, which have an effect on the kind of service that can be provided.

But I took a note of the variations in the prices charged for different articles. Some of these prices were quite high. In one self-service establishment tea cost 9d. in a plastic cup. In some places hygiene was not what one would expect. There were variations in the way in which food was kept. Sometimes dishes containing cooked food were left exposed for long periods, until required. There were great differences in the time one had to wait to be served. But it is not my intention to employ this occasion in haggling over individual prices or specific complaints; I am concerned about the implications of my findings and the general principles involved.

When the Ministry awards a concession to a firm and allows it to open and maintain one of these establishments, it is virtually awarding a monopoly, because the next establishment is about 20 miles away. If a motorist urgently requires refreshment, or has other urgent and more physiological needs, it is no good telling him that he has a choice of establishments when the next one is 20 miles away. When the Ministry awards a monopoly concession in which the normal processes of competition are clearly not operating it has a duty to see that the consumer interest is properly protected.

I think we might all agree on what these establishments are for. They are, first, to provide a service for the comfort and convenience of motorists, but second, and more important, they prevent motorists from leaving and rejoining motorways and from stopping on the motorways. They have a social function—that of maintaining the policy of motorways by keeping traffic moving and not leaving the motorways to visit other catering establishments. It is, therefore, important that their standards should be maintained at the necessary level. It would be disastrous if motorists left the motorways, perhaps to visit licensed establishments for their refreshment. But are we agreed on how the places should be run?

The argument constantly put to me by proprietors when it was known that I was inspecting these places was that it was the financial arrangement negotiated with the Ministry which compelled them to charge high prices and sometimes to-reduce their services. I cannot know the details, but the Press were told when they asked the Ministry that they had negotiated the best deal on behalf of the taxpayers. This is proper, but, in doing so, the Ministry is also running the risk that the firm concerned will then pass on the effects of that deal to other taxpayers—the motorists. The more the Ministry acquires from these firms, the more the firms will have to collect in prices or save by reducing services.

The proprietors of a small place of this kind tell me that they pay a rent of £75,000 and a percentage of the "take". The nature of these financial arrangements must inevitably have a bearing on the prices charged and the services provided. A letter I have from one of these firms reads: Unfortunately, the alleged monopoly we have is not a very enjoyable or profitable one.… The developers concerned will from now on be very reluctant to participate in any future developments of this kind unless the Government and the Ministry are prepared to make considerable concessions. Another catering firm which has been considering entering this field writes: Owing to the Government's present policy of requiring tenants to build their own facilities, there is a minimum capital involvement of £300,000 for each service area. It says that this restricts these services to very big monopolies, and questions whether this is wise.

I mention these things to show that the Ministry's financial arrangements with these firms in awarding concessions have an important bearing on what happens later in these establishments. The question of monopolies is important politically. The award of a concession of this kind, which is a monopoly, carries with it a duty to protect the consumer. There is no competition. The next one is 20 miles away. The Minister is the only person who can protect the cosumer interest. I should like to know from the hon. Member how the Ministry are doing this.

In conclusion, I will put to him three questions. First, what routine arrangements exist for the inspection and supervision of these establishments so that the Ministry may be aware of whether a reasonable standard of service is being provided and whether the sort of service originally contemplated is being maintained. Secondly, what machinery exists for improving the standards or adjusting the prices where the earlier investigations have shown this to be necessary? Thirdly, what routine observation of prices and profits are conducted by the Ministry and what steps are taken to correlate these with the financial arrangements which have been made with the Ministry and with the firms providing these services? This is important. Literally millions of our citizens are using these places. It is important that their interests are protected.

It is also important that where a public service is provided—and in effect this is a public service—the interests of those providing them ought to be properly protected. We can know this only if the full facts are known and placed before us. Hitherto they have not been. The Minister is being given an opportunity which I hope he will seize upon.

6.52 a.m.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

The debate on the Consoli- dated Fund Bill has traditionally attracted many complaints about transport—naturally, because transport policy covers a wide field and normally there are widespread complaints. Especially because we have recently published what some people have told me is a highly controversial White Paper on Transport Policy, I naturally looked eagerly down the list of hon. Members from the official Opposition who were falling over themselves to raise subjects concerning transport. It was with some astonishment, therefore, that I found that the first Member of the official Opposition, just after this White Paper, was published, is No. 31 in the list. It is the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear Admiral Morgan Giles) who, if he gets the chance, will raise the subject of the Kingsworthy bypass. It seems unlikely that he will get the chance, and he is not here. Nevertheless, that was the first subject setting the Opposition aflame on this occasion. We seem to have silenced the official Opposition by the White Paper.

Therefore, I welcome the existence in the House of the independently-minded Liberal Member for Cheadle (Dr. Win-stanley), who draws attention to the important subject of conditions in the motorway service areas. In the Ministry of Transport we recognise our dual responsibility in regard to motorway service areas. We have the duty, in the provision of these sites and the control of these licences, to see that the public are given a satisfactory service. I accept that, secondly, we have a duty to see that the community gets a fair return for the investment in service areas which provide for those companies which take the contract important commercial advantages. The hon. Member for Cheadle made certain comments on the financial arrangements, and I should like first of all to make clear what these are.

I emphasise that the rents paid for the service areas on motorways are not fixed by the Ministry of Transport. They are arranged as a result of bids made in open competition by potential developers. In making their bids, companies have the responsibility of calculating what they can afford to pay, having estimated the value of the site to them. I will not reveal any details of the arrangements which are made between the Ministry and the licensees on these occasions, but I make it absolutely clear that these service areas are thrown open to competition and that the rents—the "rake-off", as some people call them—are paid into community funds, into the Department, as a result of the tenders submitted. Each bid for these service areas is made in two parts, one a fixed, annual rent and the other a proportion of the turnover, excluding fuel tax. Any suggestion, therefore, that those who are providing services in the service areas are somehow inhibited by exorbitant rents is misconceived, because the companies themselves propose the rents when tendering for the contracts.

Photo of Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that, in making those tenders, the companies concerned are, to a large extent, dependant on estimates of future use provided by the Ministry of Transport? Is he aware, for example, that the firm to which I referred stated: We would never have"—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The hon. Member cannot make a second speech in the guise of an intervention.

Photo of Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle

I merely suggest that it is not solely the responsibility of the companies but that it is, certainly in part, dependent on the reliability of the estimates given by the Ministry.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

Certainly estimates are given to the companies by the Ministry. Estimates can be made by the prospective tenderers, just as they can be made by any member of the public, about the likely build-up of traffic at certain areas. These are big businessmen who are accustomed to making estimates. Sometimes they may be wrong. I emphasise that we are not laying down the standards, fixing the rents or saying what is the proportion of the takings that should be paid to community funds. This is arranged as a result of the tenders being put in by the companies on the calculations they make in competition with one another. It is up to them to make the best estimates they can.

The hon. Member for Cheadle made considerable play with the word "monopoly". All sorts of interpretations may be given to the monopolistic position in this respect. I assert that the service areas are not monopolies. They are now being provided at intervals of 24 miles on the motorways, or a service area about every 24 minutes of travelling time. We are planning to provide them at 12-mile intervals. I suggest, therefore, that motorist are able to select which areas they will patronise, if they decide to patronise them at all, and that there is competition between these service areas up and down the M1, the M6 and other motorways.

The companies which hold the leases are responsible for the day-to-day management of the restaurants. It is clear that if they offer a standard of service which is unacceptable to motorists using the motorways, they will rapidly lose custom, since motorists are able to go to neighbouring service areas.

I should like to point out some of the peculiarities of the position of those who are operating the service areas and of the proprietors of the restaurant facilities that are provided. In all the service areas except one, catering facilities are being provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The bulk of the cleaning, etc. must therefore take place whilst those facilities are being provided to the public.

The peaks in the traffic are so large and so irregular that it is impossible to cope adequately at all times without providing unnecessary service for much of the time, and this is easily realisable, especially by those who have visited these service areas during the height of the holiday season. Consequently, and inevitably, there are times when people must wait in queues for a meal when the facilities are under extreme pressure during the holiday season.

I should like to give the House some examples. The service area at Keele, which is in my constituency, provides a typical case. On a recent occasion, 118 full coaches arrived at one side of the motorway within a period of 40 minutes, in addition to the ordinary traffic. Those coaches carried 3,600 passengers, and the full service area has a total catering capacity of 700 seats. That is typical of the kind of seasonal fluctuations that can take place. In a quiet week at the Keele service area about 40,000 people normally patronise the restaurants, but at busy times 200,000 have been known to visit the service area in a week—and that figure excludes those who use only the other facilities on the site.

It is therefore inevitable that staff costs in these service areas—offering the all-round-the-clock service from one end of the week to the other—are abnormally high. At many of the stations, the staff have to travel quite a distance from their homes, and have to be prepared to work on night shifts.

An added difficulty of these service areas is, I am sorry to say, the amount of pilfering and vandalism that has been a common feature. During the last year £2,000 worth of cutlery and crockery was stolen within the Knutsford service area. Last week, in the Keele service area, over 200 teaspoons were stolen. Therefore, when the hon. Gentleman complains of comparatively high prices, and so on, I regret to say that this fact has to be taken into account. In addition the free facilities, such as parking, toilets, and so on, provided at these establishments have to be taken into account.

The hon. Gentleman asked about inspection. Inspectors of the Ministry of Transport visit the service areas on the motorways at regular intervals, and report to us on the standards being maintained. Three months ago, the hon. Gentleman asked me a Parliamentary Question about this position, and I replied to him that if we were supplied with specific details about poor service we should at all times be prepared to examine complaints. I must say, however, that in 1965 the Ministry of Transport—which receives a number of complaints about a number of things—received only 42 complaints about standards and conditions in the service areas. When one considers that one service area alone can cater for up to 200,000 people a week, this level of complaint does not suggest a grave situation at the moment. Of course, I do not say that in order to invite a great volume of complaints to us, but that has been the position for some time.

In the last resort, the public themselves have the responsibility of bringing to our notice examples of poor service, hygiene, and so on, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and, through him, those whom he represents, that any complaints of this kind will be gone into, and treated very seriously. In 1964 traffic on the Ml increased by 10 per cent., but the use of the service areas increased by 28 per cent. This seems to show that there is something attractive and valuable about the service areas which actually increased their usage to a greater extent than that of the motorway itself.

We are not in any way complacent about the standards on the motorways or the problems which confront those who have taken licences. In the Ministry of Transport we are always prepared to assist them in any way we can but on the experience we have to date of the volume of complaints which have been made, I do not believe that there is anything unsatisfactory about the standard of service provided.