Clause 40 - Motorway picnic areas etc.

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 1st February 2005.

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Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 5:15 pm, 1st February 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 50, in clause 40, page 46, line 18, at end insert—

'(aa) in subsection (3) (power to manage), after ''picnic area'' insert ''(including, in particular, by enforcing controls on parking there and recovering the costs of doing so)'','.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 51.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Amendment No. 50 concerns section 112 of the Highways Act 1980, which deals with the Secretary of State's power to manage picnic areas. Public areas beside motorways will be designed to provide motorists with the opportunity to take a short break in the course of their journey. The Secretary of State is already able to limit the stays at picnic sites as part of his general power to manage sites. However, some individuals may wish to use these sites on a long-term basis. The picnic area would then be unavailable for the legitimate use of motorists. There may also be a risk of damage to the facilities on the site.

The proposed amendment would strengthen the Secretary of State's power by allowing the enforcement of waiting restrictions by removing vehicles and the recovery of costs of doing so. The power will extend to all trunk road picnic sites, not just those on motorways. Amendment 51 is a consequential amendment to the title of the clause; a motorway is a trunk road but a trunk road is not necessarily a motorway. The amendments strengthen the clause but this clause is necessary to ensure that we can remove people who want to squat on the site for long periods of time.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will the Minister let us have a list of trunk road picnic sites? We are obviously familiar with the motorway service area network, but there is no list of trunk road picnic sites that I am aware of, and they would be affected by this amendment. I understand if the list is not immediately available, but it would be useful to have such a list, with which we could inform the motoring public.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

If such a list existed I would make it available to the hon. Gentleman. Some of the sites are privately owned. These usually tend to be picnic sites/cafes. I will look into it to see if there is anything that we can provide that will be of any help. But as I understand it, there is no list of these sites available. Once we start experimenting with bringing these in on motorways it will be a different matter. Of course the   sites by motorways will have to be controlled much more rigorously owing to the nature of the road and the regulations that go with it.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

This is a very significant clause in the Bill. The problem of people killing or injuring themselves or others through fatigue on the motorways is desperately serious and has been the subject of an important survey by the advanced drivers association. It has also been the subject of a lot of concern and coroners' inquests and so on. The Minister is proposing, under the powers being taken in this clause, to have one—and I emphasise one—experimental picnic area which might be up and running by 2008. That is a pretty inadequate response to what is an issue of growing concern among those interested in road safety.

My next point is that, as I understand it, there has been no consultation on this with the existing motorway service area providers. If these picnic areas were to be set up they would be competing with the existing motorway service areas. It may well be that the existing motorway service area providers would be in a strong position to build, design and commission picnic areas if they were given a bit more flexibility to enable them to do so. At the moment, establishing a new motorway service area costs the best part of £25 million. About 80 per cent. of that is the cost of constructing the exit from the motorway, the slip road back on to it, the hard standing and surface areas, lavatories and so on. The other 20 per cent. is the cost of providing the other facilities, such as the food, restaurants or amusement arcades.

The Minister will remember the initiative taken by the Conservative Prime Minister, the former right hon. Member for Huntingdon, under the citizen's charter. Establishing more frequent stopping places on motorways was one of the first initiatives under that charter.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

As a result of that, quite a lot of extra motorway service areas were constructed, with the emphasis on 15-mile rather than 30-mile intervals. However, the Minister will know that, under his Government, there has been a substantial tail-off in the development of motorway service areas. I think that only one can be described as being anywhere near the M25, so there is still a big gap on the M25, and there are gaps on other roads. Meanwhile, a highly competitive industry with a great deal of expertise in providing motorway service areas wonders why there has been no consultation with it about this proposal and why it will not be involved in the delivery of new areas, instead of it going back in-house as the Minister suggests.

While the Minister is thinking about improving the attractiveness of stopping places on the motorway so that motorists suffer less fatigue, can he think about the need to deregulate some of the existing rules relating to motorway service areas, which inhibit the operators' ability to develop them in accordance with popular demand? Members of the motorway service area industry have made a range of suggestions. I shall not go into them now, but they are designed to ensure that motorway service areas are more attractive places to stop and more in keeping with the needs of the modern travelling public. It is their belief that the number of people who would stop on the motorway for a rest and/or refreshment would be significantly increased if the service areas were made more attractive. They think that that might be a better, more direct and quicker way of increasing the number of people who stop on motorways for a rest than the establishment of just one new picnic area.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not want to prolong the debate unduly, but my hon. Friend should give some of the examples of red tape that currently exist. Doing so may mean that some of the more enlightened Labour Members decide to support his argument; I am thinking in particular of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). As I understand it, currently, a budget hotel situated in a motorway service area cannot serve alcohol with a resident's dinner. It is one of the restrictions. A person cannot have a glass of wine with their meal if they stay at a hotel in a motorway service area. Surely that is ridiculous. I also understand that there are restrictions on the size of the trading area. I think that it is restricted to 5,000 sq ft. Why is it not 15,000 sq ft, to make the areas more attractive and to encourage drivers to stop more frequently? Those points are essential to my hon. Friend's case.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for informing me of his concern about this issue. He has mentioned a couple of examples. I will mention another; signage. Sometimes when people are on the motorway they want to get information about what is available at a motorway service area. One of the most important things is the price of petrol. Invariably, motorway service area signs used to show the price of petrol, but that seems to have fallen into desuetude   recently, meaning that motorists are in the dark about whether they will get a good bargain on the petrol price if they go into that service area.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

No doubt my hon. Friend is aware that something like 45 per cent. of motorists leave the motorway to find the services that they want, yet it would appear that 23 per cent. of all motorway accidents occur at sliproads and junctions. Motorists are leaving the motorway to find services. Does he not think that we should be doing what we can to keep them on the motorway by making motorway service areas much more appealing and not just by having picnic areas?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I take my hon. Friend's point, which is a good one. We are talking about trying to make the existing motorway service areas more attractive. If we set up more picnic areas, we will be creating more entrances and exits on to the motorway, with the attendant problems for road safety that he has identified. I will give an example relating to signage. At the moment, there is no provision for a sign to indicate what range of facilities is available at a particular motorway service area. Some of them get round that by allowing enormous Burger King signs to sprout up, which are normally visible when the leaves are off the trees, but that is not really the right way forward. It would be much better if motorway service area operators were able to advertise the range of facilities on offer in good time on the motorway so that people could see what they wanted to get.

Another issue is the fact that there are few specialist facilities for heavy goods vehicles at motorway service areas. I know that motorway service area operators would like to open specially designed driver lounges for HGV drivers, with vending machines, amusement machines, large-screen televisions and upgraded shower facilities. They also want to increase the amount of parking space available to hauliers. There are lots of ideas coming from the motorway service area industry, but, as I understand it, no discussion is taking place between the industry and the Government. The Conservative Government deregulated the system to an extent, and we certainly encouraged greater provision and more competition. We think that the time is now ripe for further encouraging developments through deregulation. We are not at all sure that just allowing the provision of one new picnic area, possibly in the south-west quadrant of England, would be the answer. In fact, we are absolutely certain that it would not be the answer. We would like more specialist, proper provision that would incorporate the ability to get refreshments as well as just park up.

There has always been a big argument against unmanned picnic areas on motorways. They may be all right in the summer months and during daylight hours, but many people, particularly lone drivers, will feel intimidated by the prospect of using them at other times. Do we really think that we can encourage them to stop at such areas?

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

It is interesting that I, as the MP for Taunton, am one of the few MPs who represents a motorway service area. Across the whole of the south-west, there are only 10 such areas; it seems that there are few of them along the M5 and the M4, which are in a region that contains 50-odd constituencies with millions of people. The Library tells me that there are nine motorway service areas for the 165 miles between Taunton and central London; roughly one every 20 miles. Put that way, it would seem that there are a number of motorway service areas.

It is surprising, therefore, that we should be discussing the need for so-called French aires and the regularity with which the Government want to place them along those 20 miles between service stations. I would appreciate it if the Minister addressed that point. New aires would impact considerably on motorway service areas. Under their service obligations, and where space allows, they provide rest facilities free of charge to the road user as part of their tenant agreement with the Highways Agency. How would new aires impact on the contractual obligations that the motorway service area owners already have and will continue to have with the Government? As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, it is of great concern that clause 40 has been introduced without any consultation with or notification to the service area operators.

Mr. Jamieson indicated dissent.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

The Minister shakes his head. No doubt he will want to answer that point.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

The hon. Gentleman will have read in the notes that no commercial enterprise will be allowed in the aires. On that basis, how does his argument stand up? The operators of commercial properties will lose only people who might have used some of their facilities but not paid for anything. Anybody who wants to buy something will still have to go to them, as the aires will not have anything to buy.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

I appreciate that the aires will have no commercial standing. By the same token, I look at the matter from the view of the taxpayer and those who seek to ensure that the taxpayer does not lose out. As my hon. Friend also said, there will be considerable cost in building the aires. The fact that there are motorway service areas every 20 miles or so on the M5 and the M4—just to take two motorways that, unfortunately, I know rather well—would indicate that the taxpayer will have to pay exceptionally high costs for increased motorway safety, when safety areas already exist.

If the Minister addressed those points, it would be most kind of him. The best partners to work with the Government would appear to be the operators. Those who have spoken to me think that they have not been fully consulted about the road safety initiatives. No doubt the Minister has travelled extensively in Europe, where he will have seen these aires. What discussions have his civil servants had with the French authorities and elsewhere in Europe as to how they work; the costs and information associated with putting them into operation; and how they cut down on accidents and injuries?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 5:45 pm, 1st February 2005

The clause amends section 112 of the Highways Act 1980 to enable the Secretary of State to provide picnic sites on land adjoining or in the vicinity of motorways and to enter into arrangements with a council for the provision of facilities at such sites. The Secretary of State will also be able to provide public sanitary conveniences on land adjoining the motorway.

I should like to pick up some of the points made. The hon. Member for Christchurch made a point about fatigue on motorways, as did the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook). This is an important issue, because on motorways and the major trunk roads it is probable that up to 20 per cent. of all casualties are caused by people who are over-fatigued and fall asleep at the wheel of their vehicle. When it is a heavy vehicle the consequences can be extremely severe.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

I wanted to make a contribution to the debate because I fully support the idea. In view of the length of the contributions so far, I shall keep it short. Loughborough sleep research centre has carried out a great deal of work in the area. Does the Minister agree that this is about driver choice? I thought that we all had an agenda to increase driver choice and have aire-type facilities for people such as ourselves who have young families and do not want a large motorway station, where a quick drop-off point would make an enormous difference to the number of people willing to stop more often. Research has shown that fatigue is extremely important in terms of causing fatal and other accidents on motorways, so this provision is to be welcomed rather than whinged about, which is what we seem to have done so far.  

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

My hon. Friend is right. We appreciate the work that has been carried out by the University of Loughborough, which has helped to inform much of our policy making in this area. We are not creating competition for the motorway service areas; this provision complements, and is not meant to supplant, the work that they do. The hon. Member for Christchurch said that it costs about £25 million to provide a site. I think that I pay a large chunk of that every time I buy a cup of tea or coffee in one of them. The prices are generally high because of the facilities that they have to operate 24 hours a day.

How they are going to be operated is a matter for further discussion. We were asked about France. Yes, we have been talking with the French ministry of transport on the operation and costs of running the aires. The hon. Member for Taunton and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire raised the running costs. We anticipate that the annual running and maintenance costs will be about £300,000 a year. That will be borne by the taxpayer. The toilets will be cleaned regularly. There will be a presence on the sites some of the time. The managing agents of the motorway, who are regularly patrolling for other reasons, will be calling in. We could have CCTV and so on to make sure that the sites are not being abused.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons that the costs of these service areas have gone up so much is because prior to 1992 they could be built on seven or eight acres of land, but since 1992 it has been a requirement that the minimum land take should 25 acres? Can he tell us what size land-take he has in mind for these picnic areas?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The picnic areas will be substantially smaller than that. An area of about 4 or 5 acres might be more appropriate. We have not made a final decision on that, but that is the sort of figure that we have in mind. The picnic areas are not going to be huge or expansive, but they will be appropriate for light use for short periods by people who want to pull in.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Before the Minister concludes his remarks, I hope that he will refer to the regulation that covers motorway service areas. Is he intending to address that issue? The reason that he pays so much for his cup of coffee is, as I understand it, that motorway service areas have to keep all their facilities open for 24 hours a day, even in quiet periods. Why are they not allowed to shut down part of their facilities at known quiet periods? That would result in a saving of staff costs.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

We are supposed to be discussing picnic areas, but find ourselves discussing motorway service areas. I do not want to stray into that too much. We have been considering that issue closely with the motorway service area operators, the RAC and the AA. As yet, we have not made any further decisions.

I was asked about planning consents. The motorway service areas will be subject to the usual planning consents that anything that we implement on the side of the road is subject to.

The hon. Member for Taunton will appreciate that, particularly in the west country, there is at times a heavy load of holiday traffic on the motorway. With the economy in this country doing so well, many people are taking short breaks or summer holidays and travelling to Cornwall and Devon to enjoy the wonderful countryside and the sea. More people are travelling, so we need alternatives to motorway service areas where people can stretch their legs, get the children out of the car and run the dog for a few minutes. It will be a small but important addition to road safety.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

The Minister—a Devon MP—once again referred to the west country without mentioning Somerset. My real point is about the service stations, such as they are. Has a detailed report, or any report, been commissioned as to where there is a need for these areas? Does a report exist?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Once the Bill is through Parliament we will consider that carefully. I did not mention Dorset, Avon or Wiltshire either, but there we are. There has been particular growth of traffic because of the need for tourists in those areas and for economic reasons. The clause is an excellent little one and will be welcomed by motorists in the years to come.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I do not often call the Minister complacent because I think that he takes the issue of road safety seriously, as do most members of the Committee. However, on this issue he has a bit of a blind spot. I do not know whether he received the letter from RoadChef that all other members of the Committee received. On 7 January 2005, RoadChef said,

''We are concerned that this legislation has been put forward without any consultation or notification to motorway service area operators.''

I do not know whether that was a figment of RoadChef's imagination, but that was what it said on 7 January. RoadChef is the third largest motorway service area operator in the country, trading from 20 sites and representing about one quarter of the market. It is its view that the establishment of unmanned picnic sites is unlikely to help reduce the number of deaths associated with fatigue on journeys at night, as drivers will be reluctant to stop at sites where refreshments such as coffee are unavailable. The Minister has not addressed that issue.

The Minister has also not addressed the issue as to why, if there is an obligation on motorway service area providers to provide existing rest areas for no charge on their existing sites, it is impossible to give them an option. We could say to them, ''We need to build some smaller picnic areas in the vicinity of your motorway service area and we will give you the first option to   develop those areas. We will have a competitive tender to see which bid will result in the least cost to the taxpayer.''

We are talking about people who have built up an enormous amount of expertise and experience in providing and looking after motorway service areas and all the Government are talking about is having a few picnic areas on sites that unspecified at the moment and on which people will not be doing any selling or providing any refreshments. That is different even from the sites on trunk roads, to which the Minister referred earlier, where there are often facilities—perhaps a caravan—where somebody can sell people a cup of coffee.

In the light of the research from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, clause 40 is not an answer to the serious problem of road safety. We hope that following this debate the Minister will consult the motorway services operators and come up with a better solution to this real problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 40, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.