Motorway services plan 'unrealistic': Deregulating the provision of new service areas on motorways has led to renewed demands for cheaper, greener and more relaxing stops

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A LEADING motoring organisation yesterday poured cold water on prospects of motorway travellers taking refreshment at small French-style service stations under the deregulated system disclosed by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport.

While the AA said the new regime allowing private operators to open stations every 15 miles instead of the current 30 came as a 'welcome relief' for motorists, the RAC attacked it as 'cosmetic and unrealistic'.

Under the system, to take effect immediately as part of the Citizen's Charter, responsibility for identifying sites will pass from the Department of Transport to the private sector.

Developers will have to seek local authority planning permission, pass muster in environmental assessments, and guarantee free parking, lavatories and picnic areas, 24-hour fuel sales and facilities for disabled people. Alcohol will continue to be banned along with activities 'unconnected' to road use - such as cinemas and shopping malls.

Mr MacGregor said: 'You can still drive from Folkestone to Birmingham on the M20, M25 and M40 . . . without meeting a single service area.'

The RAC was quick to point out yesterday that the Government had failed to ensure services every 30 miles under the present system. There was little point in setting a 'cosmetic' 15-mile target and expecting it to be met by private developers, it said. There are 53 stations on 2,000 miles of motorway but none on the M54, M42, M40, M20, M11 and M23 and parts of the M25, M5 and M6.

Mr MacGregor accepted at a news conference that attractive, French-style stations could not be guaranteed.

Stephen Poster, managing director of Granada Motorway Services, said it did not expect a flood of rival small stations to open.

An RAC spokesman said: 'We believe that the Government should have ensured that full service areas are provided every 30 miles with an in-filling at the 15-mile mark with the creation of rest/picnic areas, along the lines of those on French autoroutes.'

There was a split in attitudes among environmental organisations. A Countryside Commission spokeswoman said she was 'relieved' that original proposals for stations every 10 miles had been dropped.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England was more critical. Penny Evans, a spokeswoman, said a 30-mile gap was adequate. 'There is a real risk that developers will be looking at these new opportunities to obtain a toe-hold for development in previously unavailable countryside locations.'