A lengthy study held during the 1970s aimed to establish why motorway service areas were providing such poor service, and why the established operators weren't interested in building new service areas. They told the media that the public's complaints had been mostly about the restaurants.
The report was published on 21 July 1978 by the Committee of Inquiry into Motorway Service Areas, and made public on 5th September. It was headed by Peter Prior and known as the Prior Report.
It was a detailed investigation which saw interviews with the public and all the operators. The operators relished the change to air their feelings on the system, but had been concerned that the final report would be deeply critical of their practices. As a result, it had to be agreed that all criticism would be anonymous.
The investigation was prompted by a number of high-profile criticisms of motorway service areas, including those from Egon Ronay and the 1960s architecture review. These were both used as evidence. The operators had also previously made their feelings known, and comment was particularly sought from the MSA Operators Committee, Roadchef and Westmorland.
The Prior Report was one of the biggest changes of direction in terms of service station policy, but it also found that not all the negativity was justified. For example, despite the widespread customer perception that motorway service areas were ripping them off, the report found that service areas were typically making around 2% profit and a third of them were making a loss. Instead, the high prices were put down to high taxes and government regulations.
The report also drew comparisons with service areas in continental Europe - which were widely perceived to be offering better service - but concluded that standards were similar once the different operating environments had been factored in.
Peter Prior, 1977
Ahead of the committee beginning, Peter Prior had told the media that "I'm going to do my very best to ensure that the recommendations of this [report] are so practical and so obviously desirable that no government can resist implementing them". Unfortunately, the report had very little impact.
The government were keen to take the report's recommendations on board, but a new government was elected in May 1979 - just 10 months after the report was published - and the new Secretary of State for Transport declared that he wanted to "disengage" from all aspects of motorway service area management.
The new government inspection scheme and its associated financial assistance programme, which was all set up and ready to go, was abandoned and new regulations were created to suit the new attitude that the government wanted very little to do with it.
The overwhelming feeling during the Prior Report was that operators had agreed to contracts that they couldn't work with, especially in terms of rent payments. Top Rank revealed that their profits almost doubled during the year after the policies were changed, and commented that "the whole industry is more realistic and viable" as a result of the changes that were made. Operators began refurbishing their sites, removing old fine dining restaurants, and introducing more snack bars, hotels and other experiments.
While many of these new policies were based on the recommendations of the report, the outcome had more to do with the political wind at the time.
The Report's Recommendations
The suggestions made in the report were:
- Rent was changed to being profit-based, instead of turnover, to encourage operators to expand. It was changed to the option of purchasing a 50 year lease.
- 100-year contracts were introduced. Most service areas eventually had their land sold to the operator after lengthy negotiations.
- Service areas no longer needed to provide a recovery service for vehicles broken down on the motorway. It recommended a national breakdown unit replace this, though that wasn't provided.
- Machine-only catering would now be allowed, while waitress service restaurants would no longer be mandatory.
- Regulation to be moved away from the Department of Transport, but without creating a new quango.
- Rent rebates for operators who exceeded quality targets. This was all agreed and then abandoned.
- Selling only one brand of fuel would now be permitted. New arrangements led to a fuel price cut of 2p per gallon from 6 April 1979.
- Operators would be allowed to advertise their name on signs, on condition they state their fuel price, too.
- Banks and foreign exchange facilities would be permitted.
- Charging for long-stay parking would now be permitted.
- Introduction of a star-rating system for service areas (an inspection system was created but abandoned).
- Hotels would now be permitted at service areas (within reason).
- The government should consider subsidising some facilities (not introduced).
- The adjacency rule was to be lifted. It remained but was more lax.
- Spacing of service areas would now be decided on a case-by-case basis, with no rigid rules applied. A 30 mile rule was later applied.
- Recommended more truckstops (a few did open in the 1980s).
- Controversial new service station proposals were examined and it was agreed that in some places, protecting the green belt was more important.
The Daily Mail reported the announcement by stating that alcohol would be introduced to restaurants, but it wasn't.