Small motorway services allowed

Private operators are to be allowed to open smaller French- style lay-bys with petrol and food services at more regular intervals on British motorways.

The shift away from multi- million-pound developments covered by extensive planning regulations to more convenient, less intrusive service areas with greater competition will be announced today by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport.

The deregulation of motorway services may find favour with environmentalists, who have opposed the building of extensive service areas because of the destruction they have wrought in rural areas. The new service areas will still be subject to planning permission, but the facilities they provide will be determined by the market.

Under the old rules, motorway service stations were built at intervals of about 30 miles and required to open 24 hours a day with lavatories, petrol and extensive cafeterias on both sides of the motorway. This led to lengthy delays in the provision of services. The M25, one of the busiest roads in the world, has only one service area along its 117-mile length. Other motorway 'deserts' include the M40 link from London to Birmingham and the M23 from London to Brighton.

Mr MacGregor's predecessor, Malcolm Rifkind, announced in February that the Department of Transport would be putting out to consultation two options: for limited but continued DoT control on service areas, and deregulation. The Government has taken the more radical option, but is expected to offer assurances that it should allow small-scale, more frequent services and not provoke a free-for-all leading to extensive retail or leisure complexes, such as one near the Dartford Bridge on the M25, which was feared by the Countryside Commission and the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

The commission said it opposed more frequent service areas on motorways and urged the Government to limit them in national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to providing only fuel, telephones and lavatories.

Ministers will be presenting the changes as part of the Citizen's Charter to provide a more convenient service to the public.