HC Deb 21 June 1967 vol 748 cc1680-93

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

12.30 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

The matter I wish to raise is possibly a far cry from the question the House has just been debating. It affects many people, but perhaps not quite so many as are affected by pirate radio. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) will be clearly understood by the Government and that they will give a very considered reply to him when that debate is resumed.

The matter I wish to raise deals with the standard of motorway catering. I shall raise this matter in the quickest possible time so that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Ellis) can have at least two minutes before the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies. I am glad to have the opportunity of raising this matter this morning, as it is an important matter now and one which will become critical when the promised 1,000 miles of motorway are in operation in the next decade. Motorway service areas are an integral part of the motorway setup and important, I believe, both physically and psychologically to travellers using the motorways.

Looking only a few years ahead when the journey from, say, London to Carlisle will be entirely by motorways—the MI and the M6—the considerable and somewhat monotonous journey thus involved will entail the necessity of having attractive and reasonably priced areas where refreshment for driver and vehicle can be obtained.

Yet the present concept and operation of the motorway service area leaves much to be desired. It is a relatively new project in this country. No motorway service area is yet 10 years old, and there are still less than 20 operational. For this reason, I hope that we are learning from the undoubted mistakes that have been made and I hope that the lessons of the past few years are being incorporated into the new areas which will be opening.

From the customer's point of view, the present service areas compare very unfavourably with their counterparts on the Continent. One would expect the standard of forecourt services on the service station side to be high. After all, a dirty windscreen or an external mirror that is covered in dust can be potentially lethal. Yet, in common with most of Britain's garages, these little refinements of service are, on the whole, conspicuous by their absence.

Similarly, on the forecourt side the layout often leaves much to be desired, so that at peak times in some service areas the queue of vehicles waiting for fuel can lead back to the motorway itself, causing an additional hazard.

While we are dealing with vehicles, rather than the passengers in them, only a few weeks ago the full one to five star quality range of petrols was not available at many areas and attendants were trying to persuade owners of cars whose recommended grade of petrol is three star that, because three star petrol was not available, they should have five star which is much better for their car. This is technological poppycock and is an attempt to make the motorist buy a product that is not suited to his needs and which is quite a bit more expensive into the bargain.

Perhaps there have not been so many complaints on the service station aspect of these areas because the general standard of forecourt service throughout Britain is so appallingly low that the motorways are neither better nor worse than most others.

Having refuelled his car, the traveller wishes to refuel himself. If he can find somewhere to park his car—and the earlier-built areas in particular are often a very tight squeeze—he then samples the epicurean delights of motorway catering. There are one or two motorway restaurants where reasonable food can be obtained at highish, but not exorbitant, prices, in clean and comfortable surroundings. I name no names, but various organisations have produced surveys recommending particular restaurants. The majority, I regret to say, provide indifferent food at exorbitant prices in conditions which would make the average transport "caff" appear like the Savoy Grill by comparison. A recent A.A. survey summed up motorway eating in these words: Too often it is too much to pay, too long to wait. The people who are particularly hard hit are the average family of mother, father and two children, who find that simple refreshment like orange squash and a couple of sandwiches adds up to a total bill of well over £1 and the tables at which this refreshment is consumed are more often than not dirty and covered with used crockery.

Unless there is a major change of approach, there is a very real danger that these service areas will degenerate into a form of rural slum. Indeed, I think that some have nearly reached that stage already.

The shortcomings are there for all to see, yet I think that it would be wrong and unjust to lay all the blame at the motorway caterers' door. When tendering for the contracts, the would-be caterers have to have a minimum capital of £350,000 for building all the various facilities. At the same time, the annual rent for the site on a 50-year lease may run into six figures. This obviously limits the competition to the very large companies, and there is surely scope here for more flexible arrangements to enable local consortia to have a chance.

However, the contractors themselves are by no means happy with the financial and forecasting arrangements, since I doubt whether many service areas are proving anything but a financial burden at the moment to their parent companies. Because traffic flows have not come up to Ministry forecasts, or the opening of motorway extensions have been delayed, quite severe financial loss has been involved. One company said this in its last financial report: We have encountered some problems with the motorway service areas, as in some cases the roads have not been finished by the originally forecast date, with the result that traffic flows, etc. are not in line with the forecasts made by the Ministry on which we based our quotations. That was said in the Rank Organisation's report for 1966. I understand that the company concerned has had consultations with the Ministry regarding financial compensation, which cannot be very satisfactory from anyone's point of view. The imposition of Selective Employment Tax has been another extremely unhelpful factor which has pushed up costs.

Two years ago an inquiry was sponsored by the Ministry into motorway service areas. The inquiry was led by Professor Lord Llewellyn-Davies and Mr. Goddard, from London University. Reports have suggested that the inquiry more than substantiates the charges I have made today about low standards and it also criticises the Ministry because of its lack of expertise in dealing with these new problems.

I do not know whether these reports are correct, because the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has already told the House that the Report will not be published. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider this decision and perhaps today give us the favourable reply that in course of time it can be published. I think that the decision not to publish it is wrong, and I urge him to reconsider it. We are not engaged on a witchhunt, but everybody must be concerned to improve these service areas; and the publication of this Report would enable informed discussion to take place. At the moment, there is no discussion whatever.

I am sure that the Ministry is as concerned as I am about the problem, but I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us what progress is being made and answer some questions about his Department's activities in this field. For example, how many civil servants with specialised knowledge are dealing with the new technical problems of motorway service areas? By "specialised knowledge" I mean architects, caterers, traffic engineers, and economists. The appropriate authority in Germany has nearly 60 of these top people concerned full-time with motorway service areas.

What visits have taken place to the United States of America and to Germany by experts in the Ministry to see how those countries have solved their problems and what we can learn from them? I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that traffic flow statistics will be as accurate as possible so that realistic quotations can be made by the contractors.

Finally, I hope that a fresh look is being taken at the arrangements by which these sites are let, otherwise there is a very real danger that service areas for the new motorways will find no takers. We want to see clean, efficient, well-planned areas offering high standards in food and service at reasonable prices. The taxpayer should not be asked to subsidise such activities, but neither should he expect to make a large profit. The contractors have much to do to improve their management of these areas, but they are also entitled to a reasonable return on their capital and a higher standard of expert advice from the Ministry than, I believe, they have so far had.

The motorway service areas can play a positive part in road safety and in making a journey pleasurable. I hope that the Minister's reply will give some encouragement to the motorway motorist.

12.40 p.m.

Mr. John Ellis (Bristol, North-West)

Not only am I indebted to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) but the whole House is, because he has given us an opportunity today to debate a most important service for the car travelling public, a service which will become even more necessary as time goes by.

We have heard the charges levelled—that prices are high, that service is bad and that, generally speaking, the standard of motorway catering and of the service areas leaves much to be desired. I shall not go over the ground again. I agree substantially with what the hon. Gentleman said.

When I raised the matter with the Ministry earlier this year, I took the view, reasonably, I thought, that to some extent the force of complaints made by my constituents depended on how much had to be paid for the 50-year leases of the service area sites. So far, there has been no answer to the question which I raised on that point. All the details are confidential. The consequence is that it is difficult to form any value judgments on whether the concessionaires are giving a good standard of service or not, having regard to the rents which they pay. We need far more information.

It is said that 11 of the 15 operators are making losses. I do not know to what extent this is true. It should not be forgotten that they have their concessions for 50 years and, as traffic builds up in succeeding years, they can be expected to make very large profits.

How much do the service stations cost? Various costings have been given, from about £500,000 to as much as £1 million or more in one case. These service stations are an integral part of our motorway system. In my view, the Government's policy should be reviewed in many respects. Perhaps the Ministry ought to do the research to find out what is needed, then build the motorways and service areas, letting the sites to concessionaires for only a year or two. This would make it possible for professional caterers of various kinds to come in, not just the big firms like Rank, Ross and others who, one suspects, regard their concessions as, in some ways, an advertising or prestige symbol.

We must review the overall policy. What does the Minister ask of a would-be concessionaire when he applies for a concession? Does he ask for rest rooms and overnight accommodation? How far does the writ run? The overwhelming number of personal complaints which have come to my attention show that tragic consequences of the present system are felt by the man with a large family who, perhaps, wants glasses of milk and sandwiches for his children and something a little more substantial for himself and his wife. He faces a bill of £3 or £4 or even more. This is no way to make the motorway service areas popular. Is the Minister, by charging high rents, putting on a concealed toll? We do not know what the facts are.

The report of the survey done by Professor Llewellyn-Davies and the University College school of architecture ought to be published. It is said that there are in the Ministry only four officials working on these matters. In Germany, there is a much better standard of service, much better run and much more efficient. We need to know a great deal more. The effect of what is now happening in the wrangle between the Minister and the large concessionaires about the economics of the business, which are often clouded and about which we know nothing, is that the consumer, the man who uses the motorway, the man with his family or the lorry driver, is forgotten.

We want the service areas to be used. A decent measure of comfort should be provided. There should be good, clean, cheap food. People should be able to have a little relaxation as they journey along our motorways. This service is not being provided at present. By the time the motorway system is completed, we shall have over 50 of these stations, at an outlay of many millions of pounds. As yet, we have only 15. Valuable lessons are to be learned, and there should be informed public debate. The Minister should be more forthcoming on the facts and figures and he should publish the report of the survey to which we have referred.

12.45 p.m.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) for raising this matter, in which, as the House knows, I have taken a particular interest during the past year or two.

I emphasise the need to make public the report to which, quite rightly, there has already been much reference. The survey was carried out, at the request of the Minister, by a university department, under distinguished leadership, yet we are told—this was said in answer to a question from me—that it could not be published. The Minister knows that the report is constantly referred to and its contents are guessed at by the Press.

The Guardian published a long article on the subject, suggesting that the report says precisely what I said in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill last year, namely, that many of the present difficulties arise out of the contracts which the Government negotiate with the concessionaires under arrangements which they inherited from the Conservative Government.

The report should be published. Until it is, we shall not be able to debate the crucial issues involved. We shall be discussing the symptoms rather than the basic disease.

12.46 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I welcome this debate, which gives me an opportunity to put on record again the division of responsibility as it now stands. The Ministry provides the site and leases it for 50 years to the developer, who undertakes to provide fuel, refreshment, toilet and parking facilities and to pay a rent. The Ministry, I accept, has an overall responsibility to see that the public gets a reasonable service.

Under the present arrangements, it is quite impracticable for the Minister to take personal responsibility for checking on or even laying down precise standards for every meal and every detail of service in every service area at every hour of the day or night. Detailed management must be left to the commercial concerns holding the concessions, and it is to them, therefore, that specific complaints should be addressed in the first instance.

Among his many criticisms, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) has spoken of experience in other countries. I emphasise that, both before and since starting service areas in this country, we have studied extensively both the American and the Continental systems. For better or worse, we have adopted our own system based on entirely different concepts of finance.

On the question of service, I have some sympathy with what is said. It may well be true that on the Continent there is more pride in the personal service which is offered than there is in at least some service areas here. This is a matter to which attention ought to be paid by those responsible for management. There are bound to be complaints about service areas, and they will always make the headlines where there is a Ministry involved, but I cannot agree with the generally gloomy picture which is painted. Let us consider our own position at the Ministry.

The number of complaints received by us this year—I am referring to the last 12 months—was only 24 compared with 42 in the previous 12 months. I am giving the latest available figures. On the other side, we receive quite a number of expressions of appreciation about the service, the quality of food, the prices and other matters of that kind. It is a fact that the volume of trade in the service areas continues to outpace the growth of traffic on the motorways themselves, and, from the considerable number of people using the catering facilities, it is clear that the majority of customers are managing to find what they want.

We have already applied a number of lessons learned from experience. For example, the size of sites and their layout have been considerably improved as we have gone along. But we know that there is still room for further improvement in various ways at various sites. Some concessionaires are clearly more successful than others. I should like to take this opportunity of emphasising to all developers that these are problems that require constant attention; problems of giving the customers the kind of service they require. Ministry of Transport officials discuss the problems with the companies at head office level and also frequently visit the sites at all times of the year, and by day and night to see the problems for themselves and to suggest ways to improve standards.

Now I come to some specific criticisms, because I want to cover as much ground as I can, under the headings mentioned by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch—the quality of the food, prices, delays in service and cleanliness. First, we must face the fact that motorway caterers have a different problem from other caterers. It is laid down that they must provide for all tastes and pockets, from snacks to full meals, from the "transport caff" type of catering to that of a fairly high-class restaurant, and that they are expected to be able to meet practically all these kinds of demands 24 hours a day every day of the year.

Large proportions of the travelling public want the "chips with everything" type of meal, and it is no good hon. Members complaining about that. It is a fact to which the caterers should pay attention. Better-class meals should also be provided, but the demand for them is not so predictable and from what has been said I wonder whether the developers are not being over-ambitious in this class of trade. Service areas are not supposed to be dining clubs. They are designed to give the traveller reasonable refreshment and to get him on his way.

At one service area 60 per cent. of the dishes provided on the menu account for only 5 per cent. of the trade. It may well be that this extent of variety is not sensible. Staff, storage and turnover problems are introduced out of all proportion to the handful of people who occasionally require one of the less frequently requested dishes on the menu.

There is also a large and sporadic demand for snacks and take-away meals, and a large number of callers who want nothing more than a cup of tea or coffee. Everyone with his own particular wish expects to have it attended to speedily, whether there are 10 or 100 customers in the place at the time. Nobody can economically staff a business on the basis of always being able to satisfy a peak demand.

That brings me to the subject of prices. Unlike most caterers who can fix their hours of opening so as to close when demand drops, service areas are required to remain open 24 hours a day. This considerably increases the already high cost of staffing the area, which is usually located some distance from the town and inevitably means high cost of transport for the staff.

A company invests considerable capital in providing service area buildings and free toilet and parking facilities for motorway travellers, many of whom may spend nothing in the service area. I am told that recently at one service area nine coachloads of people used the toilet facilities within three hours and then left, contributing nothing to the cost of the service area.

It is also regrettable to have to say that the cost of vandalism is high. In one service area £2,000 worth of cutlery is being stolen per annum, and in some service areas the cost of cleaning can amount to as much as £4,000 a year.

I now come to the question of our charges. The suggestion is sometimes made that the contractors are crippled by exorbitant rents: this is quite wrong. I can say categorically that no concessionaire at the moment is paying a six-figure rent, and only one service area even approaches a figure of that order.

I must also point out that those developers who have invested much larger sums than the £350,000 mentioned by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch have done so of their own volition and not because of demands by the Ministry. The rents they pay are from offers made by the developers themselves in open competitive tender, but, in any event. I emphasise that at the moment the rent paid to the Ministry amounts to an average of about three farthings in every shilling.

I do not imagine—indeed, the hon. Gentleman made the point—that hon. Members would suggest that the Ministry should not recover its substantial investment of taxpayers' money at a reasonable rate of return, nor would they suggest that if we put the cost of obtaining and preparing sites on the developers the prices would not reflect the extra charge. That would obviously happen.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Rank Organisation. I should like to make it clear that we are not proposing to pay compensation to the Rank Organisation in respect of the service area site concerned. What we are discussing in respect of this one site, which is not yet open, is an adjustment of the rent to take account of the fact that traffic diversions and other difficulties have occurred which are our responsibility and are outside the control of the Rank Organisation, which has taken on the concession. Under those circumstances it is reasonable that we should negotiate changes in the original contract.

I now turn to delays. Of course, delays sometimes occur as a consequence of the unpredictability of service area custom. There are very high peaks of traffic, often without warning. As an example, 118 coaches have been known to turn into a service area within 40 minutes, bringing in five times as many customers as the service area can accommodate at one sitting. On occasions like this delay is inevitable. Unlike other catering places, the service area cannot turn customers away, and to build areas of a size capable of dealing with an occasional peak of this kind without delay is out of all reason. Managers try to anticipate intelligently special demands such as cup ties and other special occasions, but they sometimes find themselves faced with the impossible.

One of the biggest headaches of any contractor is keeping the area clean. He must strike a balance between serving a large number of customers quickly and cleaning as he goes along. People will complain about tables not being cleared as soon as they have been vacated and also about clearing up going on while they are eating. I know no complete answer to this problem, which is not made easier by the amount of litter left about, which is sometimes very considerable.

It was suggested by the hon. Gentleman that we have caused developers to over-provide by suggesting unduly high traffic figures. That is an interesting converse to the complaint that we have not provided enough. With only two exceptions, traffic on the motorways has reached the forecast figure within three years of opening at the very latest. I must remind the House, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Ellis), that developers are given a 50-year lease.

In all that I have said I want it to be clear that we are not a bit complacent about the position. Neither the Ministry of Transport nor the developers are free from faults, but the very low level of complaint to us has some significance. The complaints brought to our notice are investigated at once, but it is far better for specific complaints to be made to the manager on the spot. On the whole, generalised complaints help nobody, and those persons who cry havoc without giving evidence that they have made complaints to the right people at the right time are only doing a disservice to the cause they are apparently championing.

I should now like to say a word about the Bartlett Study. It is a confidential report to my right hon. Friend the Minister and has a largely confidential content. But basic data in the report are being published in a number of journals. I should be very pleased to draw the attention of any hon. Member who is interested, to a number of journals where basic data which are publishable will appear. I would make this point, which is a quotation from the report: The detailed needs of the travelling public for food and drink were not considered in this Study. The type and quality of the food to be provided, the variety of the menu and the cost are all topics that are quite outside the scope of this Study. I would emphasise that.

We are constantly examining the problems, including those dealt with in the Bartlett Report, and we shall examine the constructive suggestions that have been made in this debate. But I must say that it is a novel theory that the Ministry should provide experts to advise firms which are selected as expert in the fields of catering and—

It being One o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting till half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.