Fun night out at M-way services

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The Independent Online
Motorway service areas, those fuel, food and amusement- arcade oases of missile-base architecture and fake country kitchen kitsch, are set to be reborn as mini-villages.

Already substantially deregulated by the Government two years ago, the UK's two service station giants, Granada and Trusthouse Forte's Welcome Break, believe they are near convincing the Government to end planning restrictions that dictate service stops cannot be destinations in themselves.

Well-advanced plans will mean drive-in and ordinary cinemas, shopping malls, theme park-style entertainment, sports centres and hotels where once only petrol, poor food and cavernous toilets abounded.

An industry source said: "It's the end for service stops as places you pass through. Soon we'll be driving for a super day out at Scratchwood, fun at Forton or living it up in marvellous South Mimms."

Britain's first service area was opened in 1959 at Watford Gap on the M1. Until deregulation, many services remained in government hands or were rented out in franchise deals.

Greg Feehely, leisure analyst at the stockbroker Kleinwort Benson, said: "People don't consciously whizz up the M1 for a Welcome Break. But as deregulation gathers pace, the service area operators realise they've a captive market of 300 million annual passenger stops. The sales of 150 million gallons of petrol sold annually at service areas produce only wafer-thin profits. Retail is where the real pressure is to expand."

Motorways account for 1 per cent of all traffic. The lucrative sell- off of government-owned land beside motorways will, according to one Department of Transport source, "leave only pavements left to be privatised".

Under current law, service area operators cannot sell alcohol or run cinemas. Mr Feehely said: "This law will need to go when mini-villages are given planning permission."