Leading Article: Why a trip along the motorway is no picnic

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SHORTAGE of service areas and resting places on Britain's motorways - on some, their complete absence - has been a disgrace. There are none, for example, on the M2, or the M11 (which runs more than 50 miles London to Cambridge), or the M40, though two are being built on this last and one on the M11 near Stansted airport. It is possible to drive 150 miles on motorways between Dover and Manchester without encountering a service area.

The danger arises not just from the inability of drowsy or overstrained drivers to pull off to rest and freshen up, but from the risk of desperate drivers and passengers stopping on the hard shoulder, where one in eight of all motorway deaths take place. In this field, Britain has lagged pathetically behind France, where frequent service areas are supplemented by tastefully landscaped picnic areas known as aires, complete with lavatories and washrooms. Yesterday's announcement that a substantial number of new private-sector schemes for motorway service areas are (optimistically) 'in the pipeline' is therefore welcome but long overdue. Given that lives are at stake, it is astonishing that the Department of Transport has been content to open motorways without any facilities. It argued that further delays resulting from planning problems were unacceptable; and that those who eventually leased the sites for development wanted first to see how much traffic could be expected. The high charges the department then imposed were passed on to the consumer in the form of expensive, low-quality food.

Despite the deregulation of 1992, the new contractors will still have to observe certain minimum conditions, including the provision of food, petrol, rest facilities, parking and toilets 24 hours a day. It will be the consumer's loss if these put off smaller contractors or inhibit competition between sub-contractors within larger sites.

The department is determined that the new service areas should not become destinations in themselves, complete with extensive shops and, notionally if improbably, delicious but alcohol-free restaurants. That apart, it will be up to market forces and local planning committees to regulate development. As for separate picnic spots, they can be forgotten, since no one can make any money out of them.