A lengthy study 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.
Published in 1978 by the Committee of Inquiry into Motorway Service Areas, 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 service. 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.
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.
The Report's Recommendations
Not every recommendation was introduced, but the following suggestions were made:
- Rent was changed to being profit-based, instead of turnover, to encourage operators to expand. This would soon change to the option of purchasing a 50 year lease.
- 100-year contracts were introduced; most of the services had their land sold to the operator after lengthy negotiations.
- Services no longer needed to provide a recovery service for vehicles broken down on the motorway. It recommended a national breakdown unit replace this.
- Machine-only catering would now allowed, while waitress service restaurants would no longer be mandatory.
- Regulation moved away from the Department of Transport and to the MSA Board, instead of creating a quango.
- Rent rebates for operators who exceed quality targets (not introduced).
- Selling only one brand of fuel would now be permitted.
- 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 services (not introduced).
- Hotels would now be permitted at services (within reason).
- The government should consider subsidising some facilities (not introduced).
- The adjacency rule was officially lifted.
- Spacing of service areas would now be decided on a case-by-case basis, with no rigid rules 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.
In 1979, Top Rank revealed that their profits had almost doubled, and commented that "the whole industry is more realistic and viable" as a result of the changes.
The overwhelming feeling during the Prior Report was that operators had agreed to contracts which they couldn't work with, especially in terms of rent payments. The subsequent changes started to change that. As a result, all the operators began refurbishing their sites, removing old fine dining restaurants, and introducing more snack bars, hotels and other experiments.