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How To Design A Service Station

The plan for Watford Gap.
The concept of services might have been rushed but it was unveiled with a fanfare.

One of the most remarkable things about the notorious motorway service area is that it was never actually designed. The first few services were a panicked attempt to get something open.

The two test sites were deliberately built with very different designs: Newport Pagnell was an impressive building straddling the road, while Watford Gap was a greasy affair at the back of a car park. One wanted to be a family restaurant, the other a large forecourt. They were chalk and cheese, and they inspired some clear trends.

The two facilities were both overrun and operators were convinced this new industry was going to be a goldmine. The government simply wanted more of the same: lease each site to one developer who can be trusted to bring in as much tax revenue as possible.

See also: Accessibility, Bridges

1960s: something to talk about

Between 1960 and 1968, every service station to be built had one thing in common: it wanted to show off. Bold architecture built next to or even above the road. A choice of fine restaurants often with balconies or viewing platforms so guests can admire the wonder of the motorway era. They were being led by caterers and entertainment venues because the monopoly rules meant oil brands weren't interested. They were places to enjoy; they promised "the finest catering in Europe".

"This is a matter to which we are devoting a great deal of attention."
John Hay MP, 1961

Reality soon kicked in. To maintain a fine-dining establishment - especially a big building towering over a motorway - required continuous investment that ate at most of their marginal profits. Grand foyers looked impressive but didn't produce any revenue.

One problem was that the traffic forecasts given to operators were hopelessly inaccurate. Some restaurants were far too small, while many were expecting a wealthy, hungry leisure driver which simply didn't exist. Some motorways took far longer to complete than expected with operators having to open up far too early for fear that someone else would win the contract. A mistake had been made with the (expensive to build) car parks and they were being built far too small. For all these reasons, many operators did not turn a profit in the 1960s, while their facilities were described as "shoddy and dear".

Another issue that hadn't been anticipated was that if you make a simple mistake in the design of your building, such as making one kitchen too big and another too small, making any changes requires expensive construction work. The solution was to use a single, central kitchen and to use portable dividers and ropes that can be moved, but by the time this was discovered the most important service areas had already opened.

Inspectors from mainland Europe commented that Britain's service areas were "too far apart, too American, too small and didn't have enough trees". Britain's Ministry of Transport argued that their newest service areas were "at least presentable, even if they are not outstanding contributions to the beauty of the country".

Government rules dictated that the majority of the facilities had to be provided in one building, and everything had to be operated by the same company, which meant that running a motorway service area turned into a distinctive industry in its own right. Another design hurdle that had to be overcome was how to provide a large water tank. Leicester Forest East had its own tower, while Keele attached it to the building and Burtonwood hid it in the roof.

Towards the end of the decade, a clear blueprint was established which was slightly toned down compared to some of the earlier openings. That's because the early investors quickly realised they couldn't afford to continue as they had started; investment had been much higher than anybody expected. A government report found that developers were "proceeding cautiously" while massively cutting back on their investment and running costs. Even so, the intent was clear: build something memorable and make it seen from the motorway.

1970s: finding shortcuts

Hensall motorway building agreement copied Abbey Barns.
Service areas were becoming so common and so similar, they were literally copying each others' paperwork.

The key theme of 1970s service stations was "lack of interest". So far all motorway service areas had been proposed by the same few names, who were now struggling financially and getting cold feet on the whole idea. Some were angry at the government for the lack of help they were receiving.

The government did begin to permit much smaller developments, some of which were barely more than a forecourt. When the operators did show an interest, their design work was often cheap and uninspiring. Inside, bland cafés had replaced lavish grills, and complaints about quality were stacking in. Financially, the government felt they were getting the bare minimum return, which was hardly justifying their investment.

Most crucially, service areas built in the 1970s stopped having big windows overlooking the motorway, and instead tried to be positioned as far from the road as possible. There was more sympathy for the environment all round, with wooded sites trying to preserve as many trees as possible. Formulas were developed who help control the size of restaurants and car parks.

One of the problems with attracting interest is that things had gone too far the other way: whereas the 1960s service areas all had ridiculously small footprints that would never be able to fit everything in. By the 1970s, the government had tried to remedy that and instead designated vast swathes of land which has never been needed. Some sites, like Anderton, will be forever dwarfed by massive grounds which never get maintained.

At the end of the decade, the Prior Report tried to right all the wrongs in the regulations, meaning progress was suspended for a while. A new government wanted to "disengage", with the emphasis shifting from service stations being places to repair and refuel vehicles to improving customer feedback, and reviewing unhelpful tax arrangements which were discouraging investment. Catering no longer needed to be spread across several buildings, and in fact could be provided entirely by machines if desired. Food quality dropped dramatically - but at least they had a menu people wanted to buy from.

At Gordano and Exeter, the government couldn't find any suitable places for service areas, so they started being shoehorned into tiny corners at busy roundabouts. This would prove to be a mistake.

1980s: bare minimum

By now the motorway network was almost finished, but building new service areas was proving more difficult then ever.

"Improvements do not come from inquiries and inspections."
Norman Fowler MP, 1981

New sections of motorway were running through green belt land and trying to dodge environmentally-sensitive areas. Planning service areas had been demoted to an after-thought and the Department of Transport couldn't decide whether they should pursue a strategy of fighting to have something big built or planning something insufficient but more likely to be approved. They erred towards the latter, but not without a lot of hesitation.

To further complicate matters, operators had realised they held the power. The DoT didn't want the embarrassment of proposing a new service station that none of the operators wanted to build, so they could only put forward sites which sounded lucrative. This was another argument for them backing under-sized sites next to overloaded roundabouts. This was the era which had the bright ideas of building Birchanger, South Mimms and Thurrock.

Regardless of what the DoT wanted, new regulations meant the operators could also propose their own sites for new service areas. Once again the operators wanted to be building next to busy roundabouts, but they were also good at identifying smaller gaps in the market like Pease Pottage, which would one day grow to be very busy. Many smaller sites were being pushed by oil companies, who didn't want to lose their customers as more and more bypasses were opening.

Inside the service areas, brand names started to become important. They were all own-brands, but service areas were now really trying to get families to recognise them above the competition. Until now operators had generally promoted each site on its own merit, but now they were trying to get people to look out for their network of service areas across the country.

Away from the motorways, family restaurants (especially those owned by the Forte empire) were really taking over the A-roads, often by closing down cheap truckstops. It was all a bit basic, but it was a basic that the lucrative family market liked.

1990s: gardens and burgers

Oxford services dining area.
You might not have wanted to eat, but you had somewhere nice to do it.

At the start of the 1990s, the industry was deregulated, with the aim being to kick-start a number of new applications and introduce a number of new names. It didn't really work out like that: there was an increase in new proposals, but they mostly involved fighting over a small number of roads.

Policy was changed so that new service area proposals only needed to prove that they would be suitable for the next 15 years, not 30 years as it had been, which meant much smaller sites could come forward. These would generally be built by smaller developers and go on to experience operational issues, like Cullompton and Bridgwater.

Service areas still wanted to be built at junctions, but the majority were now going to great lengths to impress tired drivers. Gardens were planted inside and out, service areas had long driveways and water features, and their names became more picturesque as well. Everything wanted to be called Park, Green, Water or Valley.

Individual restaurants were dispensed with and instead food courts began to take shape, focusing on well-known fast food brands. Buildings now had significant extensions and some were gaining large shopping centres too with a whole host of new items now for sale. These shops were all held in small units, which could easily have their name changed when a new franchise came along - a big change from when every facility had its own purpose-built corner.

"Naff has replaced grot."
The Independent, 1992

The new-look Granada logo summarised the attitude of the operators. It was all very corporate, very uniform, and about getting your company name in as many places as possible.

The operators engaged in an architectural competition once again too, but this time it was about who could create the most pleasant dining area. By the end of the decade most new service areas were opening with large windows overlooking fountains and ponds. Unfortunately this satisfaction didn't really effect the quality of the food, which was now managing to be basic, disappointing and expensive.

Were the big windows and fancy fountains really taking all the catering budget or was it being squandered? The operators argued that the money wasn't there, and increased the pressure that they should be allowed to open ancillary facilities like cinemas, but it didn't happen.

All these inventions and positive ideas were an effort to woo families and day-trippers. HGVs, who were increasingly struggling to find anywhere safe to stop, were being told that their custom wasn't profitable enough. In this new 'free market' way of thinking, it was all about the cars.

2000s: I know your name

Welcome Break sign.
Brand names became everything.

At the very end of the 1990s, a few service areas opened with a series of units around a large dining area, all housed within a large, tall, glass building. This became the standard design of the 2000s, a simple design that you could modify to suit almost any environment. Granada called it a "town".

The benefit of this building design is that it's extremely flexible, with new units able to be set up in days, and existing concessions can easily be moved, removed, renamed or extended. It was much more manageable compared to how things had started, if not a little soulless.

At other service areas, the range of shops and restaurants was consolidated into a few very well-known names. The operators discovered that people had a lot of respect for food served by names they recognised from the high street, with the added bonuses that burgers were cheap to make and easy to profit from. In particular, there was a real focus on attracting commuters and business travellers, who were seen as the 'untapped market' and the best way to expand each business. As a result, speed of service became key.

"Our mission is to be the best motorway service operator and to overcome a poor reputation."
Welcome Break, 2005

M&S Simply Food was a revolution when it opened up on the motorways, with people discovering that service areas could be what they regarded (at the time) as being "decent". By the end of the decade the obsession had moved to Roadchef's partnership with McDonald's.

For the smaller sites, an old design was welcomed back. In the 1970s, temporary service ares like Michaelwood and Burton-in-Kendal had basically consisted of a petrol station with a back door to the sales shop that non-fuel customers could use to grab a few bits. This design was now being jazzed up a bit, adding a few food franchises, and appearing across the country like at Derby South and Leicester North and eventually all across Ireland.

By the end of the decade just about everything was franchised, and the operators were even dipping into each others franchises, such as Welcome Break running the hotel at a Moto service area.

2010s: coffee with an ethos

Gloucester services building.
Gloucester showed the country that subtlety was key.

Various service areas had boasted how much energy they could save or how much electricity they produce on-site, but Gloucester totally changed everything by blending in seamlessly with its surroundings. Suddenly every service station wanted to have a huge grass roof, and further government deregulation meant there were a lot of proposals being made, even if virtually none of them made it through the planning process.

The 'Gloucester effect' did more than just make grass roofs very fashionable: it started a whole fightback against gaudy buildings and tacky advertising. Instead wood-effect styling, local branding and local history were introduced to busy service areas across the country.

It was as if the big operators had received a memo that their service areas were too manic and they wanted to look like they had brought things down a notch. For instance the new Leeds Skelton Lake - despite having some of the biggest brands in the country - also offered a small, ethical food chain, while Roadchef's proposal for Catterick included its own farm shop.

Meanwhile, after bringing all customers into the same dining area, service areas now began to spawn additional buildings again. Drive thru coffee shops started to appear everywhere, as well as stand-alone restaurants for people who did want a three-course meal after all. At Vale of York, the proposed coffee shop would be placed at the far end of the site, with its own seating, car park and picnic area, almost becoming a service area in itself.

Service areas which had invested in shopping centres were now struggling to fill them, as those parts of the retail industry was itself in decline. Instead, food was the big business (specifically coffee and burgers), as operators targetted the newly-identified "transumers" market. Even petrol station operator Euro Garages were becoming more interested in the food franchises they could operate, even if they took on a number of motorway petrol stations from the big operators who felt fuel was a complete distraction from their hospitality trade.

Petrol stations were big business too, but only because you could use them to sell coffee. At motorway service stations, the on-site petrol station was now a mini service station in its own right, able to do everything the big amenity building next door could do. This put us in the strange position where Roadchef were able to send almost all of their staff home on Christmas Day and claim it's OK because their neighbours at Euro Garages were meeting all their contractual obligations for them.

"Can new motorway services drive an economic recovery?"
BBC News, 2013

The key change in attitude came from the Highways Agency. Previously, their role had been to regulate the behaviour of service areas by stopping them doing too much (by building facilities aimed at day-trippers) or too little (by cutting corners). By 2013, the Highways Agency was under pressure to facilitate more development by the roadside. So they effectively announced that they were abandoning most of their regulatory practices and service areas would be encouraged to build whatever they liked. No minimum distance between service areas was provided.

The relaxed planning laws benefited smaller developments, with small-box shaped drive thru buildings cropping up all over the country's A-roads, usually with very little thought going into the local environment or making the building in any way interesting. While one can wonder about the politics of this, especially the number of 'drive thrus' opening in council areas that have declared a climate crisis, the 'copy and paste' planning style is ultimately no different to what Little Chef had done for 30 years.

Larger developments don't have quite such an easy time in the planning process, despite the post-2013 regulations being very open to new ideas. With virtually no new motorways open, there are only a few gaps in the market left (principally on the M25 and the M42), and those are difficult areas that have been subject of service area planning disputes for some 40 years.

This means two things: any new motorway service area that does get built will have to be very sympathetic to the local environment if it's to survive the planning process, but also there are very few examples to analyse. The key trends appear to be trying not to upset the neighbours while keeping it green, keeping it flexible and selling as much coffee as you can.

Subsequent Changes

Since this story was written, a curious development has been the creation of a canopy for electric vehicle charging hubs: this creates another roofed area to blend in with the rest of the facilities.

New regulations, published in 2022, briefly mentioned that a service area should be "sympathetic to the character of the site". They also vaguely speaks of "high-quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings". However, at the same time, outdoor facilities like play areas and picnic areas were removed from the requirements.