Motorway Service Stations

Part of Orders of the Day — International Criminal Court Bill [Lords] (Programme) – in the House of Commons at 12:05 am on 3 April 2001.

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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.