Motorway Service Stations

Part of Orders of the Day — International Criminal Court Bill [Lords] (Programme) – in the House of Commons at 11:45 pm on 3 April 2001.

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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.