Motorway Service Stations

Orders of the Day — International Criminal Court Bill [Lords] (Programme) – in the House of Commons at 11:34 pm on 3 April 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Clelland.]

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 11:45, 3 April 2001

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving you cause earlier to reprimand me for bringing work into the Chamber. Like the lame man who lay beside the pool at Bethesda and was anxious to reach the pool when the waters were disturbed, I was afraid that I might miss my Adjournment debate because I was not sure whether the preceding debates would take their full allotted time. Given the lateness of the hour, I was anxious not to miss the opportunity.

I want to put on record my gratitude to Mr. Speaker for calling the debate. I have tried on several occasions to obtain a debate on motorway service stations. The subject would have made a good Westminster Hall debate because several hon. Members have such service stations in their constituencies and others have experience of them. We could have held a wider debate on the subject.

A propos of that, I want to refer briefly to two contributions that I have received. First, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation pointed out that an Office of Fair Trading report on motorway service areas, published in December 2000, suggested that they provide poor value for money, and poor food and refreshments. I am sure that several hon. Members might have something to say about that.

Secondly, during last year's Easter holidays, the Automobile Association carried out an interesting survey of European motorway service stations. The United Kingdom's position is not good. Of the 10 UK service stations inspected, five were rated as acceptable, three as poor and two as very poor. Overall, UK service stations were rated as below average in Europe.

In that context, I want to consider a decision that relates to my constituency and directly affects that of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr Taylor), who is present tonight. He has campaigned hard with me to oppose the decision to allow the construction of a motorway service station in the Meriden gap. It is an interim decision, and until it is final, I assure the Government that we shall fight it tooth and nail.

For hon. Members who are present and not familiar with the location, and anyone who may read Hansard tomorrow morning, the Meriden gap is a narrow strip of green belt between Coventry and Birmingham. It is five miles wide at the point that we area discussing. In my maiden speech, I spoke about the need to protect the Meriden gap. Less than four years later, we are fighting hard to resist a development that my hon. Friend and I and our local authority implacably oppose. Solihull metropolitan borough council refused to grant planning permission for it as well as for two other developments in the same area. All my constituents oppose it; my postbag is flooded with protest mail from them.

I ask the Minister to extend an invitation on behalf of my constituents to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to examine the site. However, I stress that he should pick the right time of day. There is no point in travelling to the bridge over the M42 near junction 6 at an off-peak time. He should come with me in the rush hour to see the gridlocked traffic. There is nose-to-tail traffic in both directions. The Secretary of State should therefore reconsider the decision.

There are a variety of reasons for the severe congestion on that stretch of the M42. I am sure that hon. Members who have to use it are familiar with them. The service station is located south of junction 6, which carries all the traffic to Birmingham international airport and Birmingham international railway station. It is the junction with the A45 that serves Birmingham city centre and Coventry. Exhibitions at the National Exhibition Centre, for which the road is the exit, are seasonal causes of intense congestion. When the spring or autumn fair is on, that queue can stretch right back to junction 3 of the M42. Any hon. Member who uses the M6, which is notorious for its congestion, will know that any delay or heavy traffic on that road backs up to junctions 7 and 6 of the M42. We are talking about a highly congested stretch of motorway.

Hon. Members may also recall that not so many years ago, that location was the site of a terrible motorway pile-up, which is still alive in the memories of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend. None the less, the Government have chosen to justify their choice of location with reference to road safety.

The motorway service area policy statement says that the Government wish to concentrate on the completion of a network of motorway service areas at 30-mile intervals. Apparently, where there is a gap of greater than 30 miles between MSAs, it is necessary to give greater weight to the needs of motorists". The Highway Code recommends that motorists stop to rest after two hours, so there is an inconsistency between the policy of having intervals of 30 miles—roughly half an hour—for motorists to take a break, and the two-hour interval recommended in the Highway Code.

It is also difficult to square the fact that motorists' interests are paramount with the Prime Minister's most recent assertions about his party's environmental credentials. He said that we need to put business, technology and environmental protection together. In this instance, however, environmental protection has been sacrificed in the interests of the motorist.

There are a number of contradictions in the decision made on the motorway service area application. The interim report says:

The Secretary of State agrees that each of the proposed schemes originally there were three— would cause harm to the openness of the Green Belt", and that he also agrees that motorway service area developments on the proposed sites would have an urbanising effect". There is a clear acknowledgement that the development would be detrimental to that section of green belt. There is a local site of special scientific interest, and also a problem with the water table. Indeed, a variety of environmental concerns are associated with choosing that site.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

My hon. Friend is making a thorough job of cataloguing the misery and anger of our constituents. Will she take account of one other environmental factor? The fact that such an area will be lit all through the night means that some of our constituents will never again see the night sky from their homes. What a price is that to pay?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

A very high price; light pollution is one of the hazards of the modern age. At our crossroads in the midlands we are prone to suffer that sort of erosion of our environment. My hon. Friend's constituents who live at Catherine-de-Barnes, the hamlet closest to the development, are very anxious about that aspect. There is no question but that there will be environmental harm; the decision is based on the idea that the benefits to the motorist outweigh that harm.

The Government considered some mitigating measures, but they involved providing auxiliary lanes for the motorway, and those, too, have an environmental impact. I am sure that all motorists are familiar with what happens to the traffic when, after a three-lane motorway has been widened to four lanes in one place, it goes back down to three lanes, as would happen to the M42: immediately, there is congestion.

The development has been proposed at a time when the widening of the motorway is under serious consideration as part of the west midlands multimodal traffic scheme, which has not yet been decided on. It therefore seems to me that any question of mitigating measures involving the widening of the motorway should wait for that regional decision to be made.

In the statement, the Secretary of State referred to the important question of setting precedents. He said: The Meriden gap is 10 km wide at this point and as the proposal is for an on-line facility"— I am not quite sure what that means, but perhaps the Minister will enlighten us— which would be situated in relatively open countryside, it would clearly be perceived as a motorway related development and would not set a precedent for further development. My response to that is, "Do not believe it." The fact that the Secretary of State is "minded" to grant planning permission for a motorway service area that might include provision for a lodge—a Travelodge with 66 lettable bedrooms—will unleash a deluge of applications for hotels in the green belt. Such developments have hitherto been strongly resisted at this point in the Meriden gap, and a number of developers who have had their planning applications in the green belt turned down are looking eagerly at this aspect of the decision.

The decision is being justified because it is thought unreasonable to deny motorists the opportunity to stop and rest". I hate to disappoint the Secretary of State, but that hotel, if built in the Meriden gap, will be filled by people attending the NEC. A weary motorist might roll up at the service station in the hope of finding a bed for the night, but he would be most likely to find it fully booked by people attending an event at the NEC. Therefore, I do not think that that argument stands up at all.

Another important point is the footprint. The Secretary of State agreed with the inspector that as part of a Motorway Service Station, the lodge is inappropriate development in the Green Belt. He also said: A lodge would add to the footprint of the built development and have some impact on the openness of the Green Belt. The size of the footprint is very controversial in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull.

It is significant that, in July 1998, the Under-Secretary, Lord Whitty, made a statement about motorway service areas having a footprint of 5,000 sq ft as a limit, but it was unclear whether that should be taken as applying to the main amenity building or the MSA site as a whole. That has created a loophole for development, which has been exploited in the case of this decision. There is a warning in this case for other hon. Members who may be faced with a similar situation.

At the Catherine-de-Barnes site, the permitted area for a fuel sales building is 360 sq m—I am sorry to switch from imperial to metric measures—but that is in addition to 465 sq m of retail space. The 465 sq m of retail space marries up with the Under-Secretary's statement about 5,000 sq ft. However, unless I am much mistaken, there has been a terrible error here. In the case of Catherine-de-Barnes, the 465 sq m has been conceded, but, in addition to that, there will be an extra 360 sq m for a fuel sales building. Together, that makes 825 sq m, or 8,800 sq ft. That would seem to fly in the face of the limit that the Under-Secretary described, and we seek clarification on that important point.

I can anticipate what the Minister will say. He will say that the previous Government are to blame. They are not. Until 1992, the Department of Transport—as it then was—was responsible for promoting new motorway service areas. Its policy was to provide them at intervals of half an hour's driving time, or of about 30 miles, although when one is driving at 70 mph those figures have to be approximate. The important point is that the previous Government used discretion. A written answer on 24 November 1994 cited a letter from Lawrie Hayes to Sir David Mitchell, in which he stated that we recognise that there are stretches of motorway where either demand is unlikely ever to support MSAs … or where planning constraints will dictate a lesser frequency … we are prepared to be flexible."—[Official Report, 24 November 1994; Vol. 250, c. 262W.] That is on the record. For the record: The Conservative Party has a policy of not building on the Green Belt at all and our Environment spokesmen have said they would call this decision in to look at it again. We need similar action, not just warm words from this Government. In a debate in another place in 1992, the then Government spokesman said: Any proposal for a motorway service area will be subject to planning permission."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 November 1992; Vol. 540, c. 918.] That is an important point. Planning permission was refused by the local authority—Solihull metropolitan borough council—and democratically elected local councillors who sit closest to the decision and know the environment best of all, but the Secretary of State has chosen to override that decision, ignore public opinion and back the developer—small wonder that my constituents doubt the Government's commitment to listening to the people.

I have another important point to raise with the Minister, which has been brought to my attention by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, whose representatives— local people living in the constituencies that will be affected by the change—played an important part in the public inquiry. They say that the inspector's report gives the impression that the Highways Agency was fully represented and section 10 contains eight pages on "The case for the Highways Agency", but what happened was unsatisfactory. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and I attended the inquiry, so I can vouch for that.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Indeed. The inspector allowed the Highways Agency to get away with submitting written statements rather than offering a witness who could have been cross-examined. The inspector's report relied heavily on the Highways Agency's views on motorway operational matters, but it gave no evidence that was open to cross-examination on need, the operation of the motorway system, signing or the M42 widening, which is needed to enable the Catherine-de-Barnes site to be developed.

Unless I am much mistaken, that was the first occasion on which the Nicholson principle was not obeyed. Under that principle, it should be possible for cross-examination on the main evidence to be conducted. That is an important point, because the opinion of the Highways Agency is crucial to the interim nature of the decision. As I understand it, its finality will hinge on whether the Highways Agency is satisfied about its agreement to widening the motorway at that point. Its non-appearance for cross-examination fundamentally undermines the value of the inquiry and its findings.

I strongly urge the Government to think again. The site that they have chosen for a motorway service area stands at the narrowest point of the Meriden gap. In the same segment of land, we find Birmingham international airport and the NEC—both public amenities of wider regional, national and international significance. What is needed is clear strategic planning for that vulnerable strip of land. It has suffered for too long from piecemeal planning decisions, such as those that collectively led to the erosion of the Meriden gap.

The projections for the expansion of air travel are bound to lead to pressure to expand such an amenity, yet the service station site would lie at the foot of any runway extension and it would be uncomfortably close to the flight path. That element was not discussed in any great detail at the inquiry, so I simply ask the Minister, is it wise to allow the development to be built in such proximity to the flight path?

To keep pace with international demand for exhibition sites, the NEC had to expand. Although I hated to see green belt consumed in such a way, I recognised that our NEC needed to remain competitive. However, that aspect has to be considered hand in hand with what happens to the transport network at that point in the midlands motorway crossroads.

My constituency contains pockets of deprivation with huge unemployment, but the motorway service station would be yet another employment opportunity plonked down in the countryside with no public transport available, so local residents would get all the hassle, but none of the benefit. Those are strategic issues and I appeal to the Government to stop and think to try, like an eagle, to fly above the Meriden gap and look down at the airport, the NEC, the four-track widening of the west coast main line and the building of the Birmingham northern relief road; and to stop and, in strategic terms, think about whether it is really the right site. The development would stick out like a sore thumb in the green Arden pasture land, next to a gridlocked motorway. It would be a white elephant.

The dome stands as a monument to misplanning; let us not make the same mistake a second time. If the Government want to prove that they listen, if they want to claim their green credentials and if they want to demonstrate that they have strategic planning capability, let them please think again.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 12:05, 3 April 2001

I begin in the usual way, by congratulating the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on securing the debate and giving the House an opportunity to discuss current proposals for a motorway service area on the M42 in her constituency. I also listened with great interest to what was said by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). In the limited time available, I shall try to deal with as many of the innumerable points that have been made as possible.

It may help if I first explain the Government's policy on the spacing of motorway service areas, as it is against that background that decisions on individual proposals are made. The most recent such advice took the form of a statement issued by my noble Friend Lord Whitty in July 1998. This is a subject on which Ministers in successive Administrations have given advice at intervals over the years, which has inevitably caused periodic changes of emphasis; but perhaps the most noticeable feature has been the consistency of the underlying approach.

Motorway service areas exist to fulfil a road safety function by offering motorists an opportunity to stop and rest. If they are to meet that need, they must be provided at regular intervals. Of course, it might be argued from the motorist's point of view that the more motorway service areas there are, the better: if they were available every five miles, a driver who wanted to take a break would never be more than about five minutes' drive from a motorway service area where he could do just that. Motorway service areas are large developments, however. They have to be, because to fulfil their road safety function they must be large enough to cater for all the motorists who want to visit them. As motorways run mostly through the countryside rather than towns, most service areas will of necessity be in rural areas. Motorway service area spacing policy is, therefore, about achieving a balance. On the one hand, we must provide adequate opportunities for drivers to stop and rest; on the other, we recognise the need to protect the countryside from excessive development.

The consistent view across all Governments has been that that balance could best be achieved by placing service areas at intervals of about 30 miles. On the assumption of normal motorway speeds, that meant that drivers had the chance to stop roughly every half hour. It also meant that the need for large developments in the countryside was reduced to the point at which such developments were genuinely exceptional cases. In other words, they might—I emphasise the word "might"—properly be regarded as exceptions to the presumption against development in the green belt.

It has been suggested that my noble Friend's statement went further than earlier statements of Government views on motorway service areas spacing, and that it made inevitable the approval of at least one of the M42 proposals. If anything, the reverse is true. In fact, the statement emphasised that having a motorway service area every 30 miles was by no means an absolute requirement. It certainly stressed that the Government's prime concern would be completion of a network of 30-mile service areas where that had not already been achieved; but it also said, in so many words, that that did not amount to a presumption in favour of proposals that would contribute to completion of the 30-mile network. They would continue to be subject to the normal operation of the land use planning system. It is that system that allows for the merits of a particular proposal to be tested against other considerations, including those that the hon. Lady has raised.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not. I have little time, and much to say. If there is an opportunity later, however, I shall certainly yield to her.

It is worth recording that one of the reasons for my noble Friend's statement was that the previous advice had encouraged the idea that 30-mile motorway service areas should be supplemented by in-fill sites at intervals of about 15 miles. My noble Friend was concerned that that approach had not achieved its avowed aim of increasing competition and choice. He therefore emphasised the Government's wish to concentrate on completing the 30-mile network. Far from encouraging additional motorway service area development, the statement moved towards an emphasis on providing them less frequently, but at locations where the need was especially acute.

The fact is that there are some significant gaps in the provision of motorway services on that part of the network, which a site in the Solihull area would fill. Examples cited in the decision letter included the gap of 49 miles between the existing services at Warwick and Hilton Park, and the gap of 68 miles between Warwick and the proposed services at junction 4 of the M54 near Telford.

I stress again that the existence of those gaps in the 30-mile motorway service area network did not mean that approval to one or other of the M42 proposals was a foregone conclusion. Both the inspector and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions weighed that consideration against all the competing arguments, including the need to avoid development in the green belt in the Meriden gap, but they concluded that the needs of motorists were sufficient to overcome those and other objections. They did so only after very careful consideration of all the issues. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand if I explain that I cannot now seek to overturn that decision on the basis solely of the matters that we have been able to consider in the short time available to us tonight.

I hope that the hon. Lady will not think that I am unsympathetic to her concerns. I recognise the anxieties of her constituents. I particularly sympathise with the view that, if an area of open countryside and, more particularly, green belt is to be sacrificed in the interests of road safety, the scale of development should be the minimum that can sensibly be achieved.

I know that, with that in mind, the hon. Lady has been particularly concerned that a motorway service area at Catherine-de-Barnes might incorporate significant shopping and leisure facilities, which will quickly transform it from somewhere for motorists to take a necessary break into an out-of-town retail or leisure development in its own right. I share her concerns. That is why successive Governments have pursued a policy of preventing motorway service areas from becoming destinations in their own right.

It is reasonable enough that a motorway service area should incorporate a shop, and all, without exception, do so. Whether every single item that such shops offer is absolutely necessary in the course of a journey is perhaps a moot point, but little would be gained by having an army of Government inspectors policing the list of items on offer. Even if we were to do so, there would always be someone for whom a motorway service area was the most convenient place to buy a pint of milk at 3 am. Because we can never be absolutely sure that a service area will never be a destination, at least for a few people, we back the policy with a requirement that no more than 5,000 sq ft at any motorway service area should be devoted to retail uses, and no more than 1,000 sq ft to leisure use.

As I have said, the aim of the policy is to ensure that motorway service areas do not mushroom into vast out-of-town retail or leisure parks, contrary to wider Government planning and land use policies. I know that the hon. Lady has been concerned that the specific limits that have been placed on retail and leisure use at Catherine-de-Barnes are higher than those that I have quoted because they take no account of retail space within the fuel area. It is true that Lord Whitty's policy statement was not specific on that point. We will therefore want to consider the need for more detailed guidance on that in preparing a circular on motorway service area policy, which we expect to issue later this year.

It is very unlikely however, that the amount of space given over to a sales area within the petrol filling station will ever make an appreciable difference to the total land take of a motorway service area, so although it is an issue that we will clearly need to consider further, I do not believe that it is so crucial in this case that it obliges us to revisit the decision that has already been taken.

The hon. Lady will be well aware that the decision letter that the Secretary of State issued on 6 March was an interim one. Permission for the Catherine-de-Barnes proposal was conditional on my right hon. Friend's being satisfied about the nature and effect of the associated highway works that would be required on the M42.

The works themselves are likely to be substantial. They will need to be, in order to address the safety issues that would arise from the increased weaving movements in the vicinity of the proposed service area. The Secretary of State has therefore indicated that he will take a final decision on the planning applications in the light of the outcome of continuing discussions between the developer and the Highways Agency on the feasibility of additional lanes between the service area and junction 6 of the M42, as identified at the public inquiry.

The hon. Lady has raised a number of other issues. I will peruse Hansard and write to her on those matters. I am grateful to her for giving us the opportunity to debate what are important issues. I understand that the decision to give the go-ahead to the motorway service area at Catherine-de-Barnes, even if it is subject to further consideration of the implications of the associated highway works, is not the one for which she and many of her constituents had been hoping. However, I hope that I have been able to give her some reassurances; not least, I hope I have reassured her that Government policy on motorway service area spacing does take very seriously the need to balance the advantages to motorists of regular services against the need to avoid—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes past Twelve midnight.