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Road: M42 at J4 and at J5A
Location: Solihull, West Midlands
Developer: Extra or Welcome Break
Grid reference: SP148757 (SABRE Maps)

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M42 motorway.
The location where the new M42 J5A is planned.

This page is about the service areas currently planned around Solihull. For other services on the M42, see Services on the M42.

On 24 February 2021, councillors from Solihull Metropolitan Council voted unanimously to reject two different proposals to build new motorway service areas on the M42, both known as Solihull services.

Concerns were raised about the loss of green belt land, and also about road safety on the M42, while some weren't convinced that a new service area was needed.

In theory the refusal should put the issue to bed, but proposals to build a service area in this area have been refused many times before, and have always returned. In this instance the applicants have the option of appealing; in fact, most motorway service areas only get approved after an appeal, as councillors often vote against them. Applegreen and Extra are both looking to appeal the decision, with an inquiry expected.

Solihull's planning department had recommended that councillors approve the Extra (Walford Hall) plan, and refuse the Applegreen (Box Tree) plan, on the basis that Extra's plan to build at J5A was more evenly spaced. In theory the motorway regulations would have allowed both to be built if deemed necessary, but green belt regulations mean that a clear and compelling need for the development has to be established, and that would be very unlikely to happen twice.

Extra Plan

Walford Hall road layout.
Extra's planned road and site layout.

The Extra plan involved building a new interchange on the M42 to the north of Solihull Road. A new dual carriageway would have run from the western roundabout, under Solihull Road, to the new service area by Walford Hall Farm, known as the Catherine-de-Barnes option.

The usual facilities would have been provided including a large amenity building with a grass roof, a large lorry park, and a large petrol station. A footpath would connect to Solihull Road. The adjacent building at Walford Hall Farm would have been brought into use as offices, requiring significant work as it is a listed building that is also derelict.

What made this development unusual was that Highways England were also planning to build a new interchange here. Their new M42 J5A would only have slip roads facing the south, but includes roundabouts that Extra's service area can be connected to. Extra were willing to pay for the remaining slip roads, and even for the interchange if the M42 J5A plan is cancelled. Extra were also willing to fund the conversion of the M42 to 'All Lane Running' to support the new interchange.

There had been some debate about the safety of this road layout, with the new slip roads leaving very little space between J5A and J6. After escalating the issue to their most senior engineer, Highways England concluded that any safety risks would be outweighed by the benefit to road safety brought about by the scheme.

Extra's plan was revealed to the public with a public consultation in December 2014. The planning process was drawn out because it wanted to be debated along with the rival proposal below.

This site has a long planning history, as is explained later on. Residents have been vociferous in their objection to service areas here, having previously formed the group "Solihull Against Motorway Service Areas", and now nearly 800 people have signed an online petition saying they don't want the project to happen.

Applegreen Plan

Walford Hall road layout.
Applegreen's planned road and site layout.

Knowing that the Extra plan had its objectors, in July 2016 Applegreen went public with their plan to build a service area at the eastern side of M42 J4, at Box Tree Farm. It had been suggested that this would be called "Shirley services".

Applegreen's plan was designed to be discreet. It would be smaller than the Extra plan, and smaller than the previous plan at this junction. Access would have been provided directly from the roundabout, with an exit onto Gate Lane.

A large grass roof would be provided, covering both the building at the petrol station. There would also be a drive thru coffee shop.

At the time of the application, Applegreen were keen to break into the UK motorway market. They had since achieved this by purchasing Welcome Break. If built, it would have carried the Welcome Break name, and hold their franchises.

Highways England had technical reservations about Applegreen's plan to integrate the site with the very busy roundabout at J4, which caused a lengthy delay to the planning process.

Planning History

Electronic signs over motorway.
The Active Traffic Management system on the M42 that wasn't compatible with the plans.

Incredibly, debate about a possible service area in this area goes back at least as far as 1969, meaning this must be one of the longest-running planning debates in UK infrastructure history.

When the M42 here was being planned, there was going to be a service area called "Friday Lane". It would have been positioned on both sides of the motorway near Catherine-de-Barnes, and the proposal prompted complaints from residents. In 1971 and 1973 it was discussed in the press, and described as being about 60 acres in size. Complaints were mainly attributed to people from Hampton in Arden.

When the M42 opened in 1976 there was no evidence of a service area having been planned here. In 1978, the Department of Transport confirmed that they were now planning to build a service area a few miles to the north of here. Called Black Firs, it would be positioned between J6 and J7, and the announcement confirmed that Friday Lane had been cancelled.

Black Firs had its land built on, and we then entered a period where motorway service area development across England ground to a halt, as the Department of Transport was occupied with other issues. In the mid-1980s, they encouraged developers to fulfil two deliberately vague contracts, which were named "M42 Northern Section" and "M42 Southern Section". The northern contract successfully led to the opening of Tamworth services in 1990, but this would be no use to traffic leaving the M42 for the M6.

Privatised Era

In 1992, the responsibility for planning motorway service areas was moved from the government to the private sector, without the southern contract having ever been fulfilled.

The following year Blue Boar proposed building a service area at Walford Hall Farm (what's now the Extra site), which they hoped to have open by 1997. It would have involved building a new flyover to provide access to the M42. This would have been the M42's southern service area, as Hopwood Park didn't open until 1999, but the Walford Hall plan got stuck in the planning system.

With that still ongoing, in 1998 Extra planned a service area at M42 J5, and in 1999 Shirley Estates proposed a service area at Box Tree Farm (now the Applegreen site). The Shirley Estates plan would have involved adjusting the route of Stratford Road. Routes in and out of the Shirley service area would have passed through a large roundabout, and then exited via a large loop.

These three proposals were all taken to a public inquiry in 1999. In 2001, the Secretary of State refused permission for the Shirley Estates and Extra plans for being inappropriate development in the green belt, but was "minded to give permission" to the Blue Boar/Walford Hall plan. This permission was never given.

In 2001, Shirley Estates submitted an updated version of their scheme. This would have been positioned further from Stratford Road. Another big change was that Extra confirmed that they had permission from Blue Boar to pursue the Walford Hall Farm proposal. Blue Boar had been taken over by Roadchef in 1998, so it's not clear exactly when that permission was granted, or whether Roadchef had actually been representing the scheme during that first inquiry.

In 2005 John Prescott reopened the inquiry, saying circumstances had changed. The main change was that in 2006 the new Active Traffic Management system (the forerunner to what's now called a 'smart motorway') was going to open. The new inquiry refused the new Shirley Estates plan, and also refused the outstanding Walford Hall Farm plan on the basis that it wasn't compatible with the new layout for the M42.

Unfortunately for Extra those perceived safety risks were only an issue there and then. A few years later smart motorways would happily be built around frequent exits and service areas with no concerns raised. At the time the 'smart motorway' was still a novel concept that even highway officials were unsure of, so they didn't want to make things any riskier.

Some may have expected the rejection of all three options in 2009 to draw a line under the matter. Things were soon kicked back into action when the Highways Agency published a list of gaps between motorway service areas in 2010. The gap on the M42 (specifically between Warwick and Hilton Park) was highlighted by them as the most urgent issue that needed resolving.

In 2014, Extra presented two options which could be built at Walford Hall Farm. The design was updated to reflect new ways of thinking, such as the green roof. The hotel was removed from the plan, and the building was moved closer to the hill. Meanwhile in 2016 Applegreen brought a smaller and more discreet proposal for Box Tree Farm to the table. These were both refused in February 2021, but with both Applegreen and Extra intending to appeal, the issue is still ongoing.

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