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

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.