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12.5 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I begin in the usual way, by congratulating the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on securing the debate and giving the House an opportunity to discuss current proposals for a motorway service area on the M42 in her constituency. I also listened with great interest to what was said by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). In the limited time available, I shall try to deal with as many of the innumerable points that have been made as possible.

It may help if I first explain the Government's policy on the spacing of motorway service areas, as it is against that background that decisions on individual proposals are made. The most recent such advice took the form of a statement issued by my noble Friend Lord Whitty in July 1998. This is a subject on which Ministers in successive Administrations have given advice at intervals over the years, which has inevitably caused periodic changes of emphasis; but perhaps the most noticeable feature has been the consistency of the underlying approach.

Motorway service areas exist to fulfil a road safety function by offering motorists an opportunity to stop and rest. If they are to meet that need, they must be provided at regular intervals. Of course, it might be argued from the motorist's point of view that the more motorway service areas there are, the better: if they were available every five miles, a driver who wanted to take a break would never be more than about five minutes' drive from a motorway service area where he could do just that. Motorway service areas are large developments, however. They have to be, because to fulfil their road safety function they must be large enough to cater for all the motorists who want to visit them. As motorways run mostly through the countryside rather than towns, most service areas will of necessity be in rural areas. Motorway service area spacing policy is, therefore, about achieving a balance. On the one hand, we must provide adequate opportunities for drivers to stop and rest; on the other, we recognise the need to protect the countryside from excessive development.

The consistent view across all Governments has been that that balance could best be achieved by placing service areas at intervals of about 30 miles. On the assumption of normal motorway speeds, that meant that drivers had the chance to stop roughly every half hour. It also meant that the need for large developments in the countryside was reduced to the point at which such developments were genuinely exceptional cases. In other words, they might--I emphasise the word "might"--properly be regarded as exceptions to the presumption against development in the green belt.

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It has been suggested that my noble Friend's statement went further than earlier statements of Government views on motorway service areas spacing, and that it made inevitable the approval of at least one of the M42 proposals. If anything, the reverse is true. In fact, the statement emphasised that having a motorway service area every 30 miles was by no means an absolute requirement. It certainly stressed that the Government's prime concern would be completion of a network of 30-mile service areas where that had not already been achieved; but it also said, in so many words, that that did not amount to a presumption in favour of proposals that would contribute to completion of the 30-mile network. They would continue to be subject to the normal operation of the land use planning system. It is that system that allows for the merits of a particular proposal to be tested against other considerations, including those that the hon. Lady has raised.

Mrs. Spelman: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill: I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not. I have little time, and much to say. If there is an opportunity later, however, I shall certainly yield to her.

It is worth recording that one of the reasons for my noble Friend's statement was that the previous advice had encouraged the idea that 30-mile motorway service areas should be supplemented by in-fill sites at intervals of about 15 miles. My noble Friend was concerned that that approach had not achieved its avowed aim of increasing competition and choice. He therefore emphasised the Government's wish to concentrate on completing the 30-mile network. Far from encouraging additional motorway service area development, the statement moved towards an emphasis on providing them less frequently, but at locations where the need was especially acute.

The fact is that there are some significant gaps in the provision of motorway services on that part of the network, which a site in the Solihull area would fill. Examples cited in the decision letter included the gap of 49 miles between the existing services at Warwick and Hilton Park, and the gap of 68 miles between Warwick and the proposed services at junction 4 of the M54 near Telford.

I stress again that the existence of those gaps in the 30-mile motorway service area network did not mean that approval to one or other of the M42 proposals was a foregone conclusion. Both the inspector and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions weighed that consideration against all the competing arguments, including the need to avoid development in the green belt in the Meriden gap, but they concluded that the needs of motorists were sufficient to overcome those and other objections. They did so only after very careful consideration of all the issues. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand if I explain that I cannot now seek to overturn that decision on the basis solely of the matters that we have been able to consider in the short time available to us tonight.

I hope that the hon. Lady will not think that I am unsympathetic to her concerns. I recognise the anxieties of

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her constituents. I particularly sympathise with the view that, if an area of open countryside and, more particularly, green belt is to be sacrificed in the interests of road safety, the scale of development should be the minimum that can sensibly be achieved.

I know that, with that in mind, the hon. Lady has been particularly concerned that a motorway service area at Catherine-de-Barnes might incorporate significant shopping and leisure facilities, which will quickly transform it from somewhere for motorists to take a necessary break into an out-of-town retail or leisure development in its own right. I share her concerns. That is why successive Governments have pursued a policy of preventing motorway service areas from becoming destinations in their own right.

It is reasonable enough that a motorway service area should incorporate a shop, and all, without exception, do so. Whether every single item that such shops offer is absolutely necessary in the course of a journey is perhaps a moot point, but little would be gained by having an army of Government inspectors policing the list of items on offer. Even if we were to do so, there would always be someone for whom a motorway service area was the most convenient place to buy a pint of milk at 3 am. Because we can never be absolutely sure that a service area will never be a destination, at least for a few people, we back the policy with a requirement that no more than 5,000 sq ft at any motorway service area should be devoted to retail uses, and no more than 1,000 sq ft to leisure use.

As I have said, the aim of the policy is to ensure that motorway service areas do not mushroom into vast out-of-town retail or leisure parks, contrary to wider Government planning and land use policies. I know that the hon. Lady has been concerned that the specific limits that have been placed on retail and leisure use at Catherine-de-Barnes are higher than those that I have quoted because they take no account of retail space within the fuel area. It is true that Lord Whitty's policy statement was not specific on that point. We will therefore want to consider the need for more detailed guidance on that in preparing a circular on motorway service area policy, which we expect to issue later this year.

It is very unlikely, however, that the amount of space given over to a sales area within the petrol filling station will ever make an appreciable difference to the total land take of a motorway service area, so although it is an issue that we will clearly need to consider further, I do not believe that it is so crucial in this case that it obliges us to revisit the decision that has already been taken.

The hon. Lady will be well aware that the decision letter that the Secretary of State issued on 6 March was an interim one. Permission for the Catherine-de-Barnes proposal was conditional on my right hon. Friend's being satisfied about the nature and effect of the associated highway works that would be required on the M42.

The works themselves are likely to be substantial. They will need to be, in order to address the safety issues that would arise from the increased weaving movements in the vicinity of the proposed service area. The Secretary of State has therefore indicated that he will take a final decision on the planning applications in the light of the outcome of continuing discussions between the developer

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and the Highways Agency on the feasibility of additional lanes between the service area and junction 6 of the M42, as identified at the public inquiry.

The hon. Lady has raised a number of other issues. I will peruse Hansard and write to her on those matters. I am grateful to her for giving us the opportunity to debate what are important issues. I understand that the decision to give the go-ahead to the motorway service area at Catherine-de-Barnes, even if it is subject to further consideration of the implications of the associated highway works, is not the one for which she and many of

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her constituents had been hoping. However, I hope that I have been able to give her some reassurances; not least, I hope I have reassured her that Government policy on motorway service area spacing does take very seriously the need to balance the advantages to motorists of regular services against the need to avoid--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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