No-go areas of motorway life

The Prime Minister is worried about our loo-less roads, but David Nicholson-Lord doubts deregulation will help
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IMAGINE for a moment you are Jacques Homme, French lorry driver from Lyons. You have just driven non-stop from Folkestone along les mauvaises autoroutes Anglaises, and you are somewhere in the wilds of Oxfordshire on the M40. You want to stretch your legs, pause for un cafe et un Yorkie bar, maybe close your eyes for an hour. But the motorway runs on relentlessly with not a Routier or hostelry in sight.

Or imagine you are John Major, trim-suited Prime Minister from Huntingdon. You have had a bad week at the Brighton conference and are being chauffeured home on the M11. Around, say, Bishop's Stortford or Saffron Walden a certain urge begins to assert itself. You wish you hadn't had that last slimline tonic. What can you do? Whistle? Cross your legs? Break the law and stop on the hard shoulder?

In both cases, we know the answer. Jacques turns off the M40, clutters up the verges of nearby roads and terrorises the folk of Banbury and Bicester with his 10- ton axle weights. Mr Major's solution is rather more dramatic. He unburdens himself to the nation.

Thanks to his travails on the M11, Britain's loo-less motorways are on the political agenda. In August, the Department of Transport announced the deregulation of motorway service areas. We are to have lots more - in theory at least. They will be cheaper, more convenient, more quickly built. This month Mr Major set the seal on the initiative with a transfixing aside at the Tory party conference.

Deregulation, he remarked, was about making life better for everyone, not merely for business. 'Take the bureaucratic controls, which means Whitehall decides whether you have the chance to stop off the motorway. Every parent knows what I mean. Next services 54 miles - when your children can't make 10 . . . They've got to go, so those rules have got to go.' Thus, with spray-on smiles from colleagues greeting a prime ministerial lavatory joke, was the latest phase in the Citizen's Charter launched.

If you arrive in England via the Channel and head for the Midlands along the M20, the M25 and the M40, it will be around 200 miles before you reach a motorway service area. The RAC reckons you can get to Shrewsbury - 250 miles - without seeing one. There are no services on the M11, the M23, the M42 and the M54. Until this year, there was only one on the 120-mile M25, even though it has been fully open for six years.

Yet seven or eight years ago the same criticisms were made of the same motorways. Examine a government list of planned service areas from the mid-1980s. It looks impressive: Iver on the M25, Birchanger on the M11, Stokenchurch on the M40, Tamworth on the M42, Telford on the M54. But where are they now? Not built - and in most cases, thanks to the planning system, not going to be.

On the Continent, free-marketeers argue, it is very different. In France, you can stop every 20 miles, choose between simple picnic sites with toilets, smart motels or hotels, nouvelle cuisine restaurants, charcuteries, patisseries. Why does Britain lag behind?

For two decades motorway services were the twilight zone of British catering. The first, at Newport Pagnell, was welcomed by the Times with the headline 'Cafeteria on the M1' when it opened on 15 August 1960, and the snack- bar image stuck. Those were the pioneer days, when Watford Gap was a place of romance and service stations were built over motorways so that you could press your nose to the glass and marvel at the traffic. All that was known of customers was that they kept on coming, in ever greater numbers. Four or five charabancs-full, and an hour's queueing was guaranteed. Then came Egon Ronay, Which? and the Prior Committee.

The first two berated service areas for their dismal food, decor and hygiene; the third, in 1979, explained what was wrong. The Ranks, Blue Boars, Fortes and Granadas, it said, were operating on short, restrictive leases which gave no security of tenure and dampened competition. Worse, the Government, which owned the sites, charged a rent that increased with turnover, leaving the companies with little incentive and not much profit to re-invest.

In 1980, 50-year leases were introduced, along with nominal annual rents, not related to turnover, and many restrictions were abolished. By 1986, Which? noted a significant rise in standards.

In 1992 the British don't much like motorways any more and the tone of criticism has altered. Yes, you can still find dirty toilets, broken taps and graffiti, but the charge now is that the operators are too clever by half. Service areas are turning into shopping malls and shopping malls into leisure experiences. Naff has replaced grot.

Go to Britain's newest service area, 'the world's most advanced', opened in June by Granada on the M25 at Thurrock in Essex. There they hold 'customer clinics' with businessmen, HGV drivers, heads of families. Round the motorway at South Mimms, Welcome Break has its monthly consumer panel. The panels and clinics want more salads and fresh food, quicker snacks, cash machines, hotel rooms. Everyone wants gifts for a wife's birthday.

But people are turning their backs on motorways. At South Mimms, Muzak is banned and you dine overlooking the restful reedy environs of the Mimmshall Brook. 'We want motorists to detune, unwind,' says John Smith, Welcome Break's marketing director.' At Thurrock, they sell Country Wear Ties and deerstalker hats] 'Very popular,' says Martin Bird, the general manager. Elsewhere there are Country Kitchen restaurants, Orchard restaurants, Granary restaurants.

Yet many service areas are voracious consumers of unspoilt countryside: at Clacket's Lane, now being built on the M25 near Westerham in Kent, a site of special scientific interest has been carved up. The services thus celebrate the greenery they destroy.

Hence the doubts about the the Major initiative. Under the old system, the DoT identified sites - roughly 30 miles apart - sought planning permission, took out compulsory purchase orders. Under the new system, private companies, working to 15-mile intervals, will buy the sites, seek their own permission.

Why should it be different? Because, say enthusiasts, sites will be smaller, more varied. But who can make money out of car parking, loos and cups of tea? 'Developers will be looking for more than that,' says Penny Evans, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. And the more shops and conference suites they tack on, the more of an urban blot they create, and the more they arouse the Nimby - Not In My Backyard - syndrome.

It is to Nimbyism, and the protests, public inquiries and legal challenges it entails, that we owe our present lack of loos. Stephen Poster, managing director of Granada Motorway Service Areas, thinks the new type of services will be no easier to squeeze through the planning process. Currently we have one service area for every 36 miles of motorway. Mr Poster says the new measures may bring only 10-15 more areas in the next 10 years. Yet around 75 more would be needed to bring us to the 15-mile interval dreamt of by the Government. Mr Major may have to keep his legs crossed.

(Photograph omitted)