Do we even need service areas any more?

Do we even need service areas any more?

This week we learned that outline planning permission has been granted for a new motorway service area, opposite the existing one at Bridgwater.

Inevitably people want to talk about its affect on the existing one. There's not a lot of love for Bridgwater services.

I actually think the current owners have done the best they can with it. OK it's architecturally bleak, far too small and impossible to find, but none of those are the fault of the current management who have to make do with it.

And as a business and a local employer, simply "giving it away" isn't the simple answer that people like to think it is.

At this stage there has been absolutely no suggestion that the original Bridgwater services won't be around for another 100 years. A petrol station, Costa and Burger King are hardly unusual sights in an industrial estate after all. In fact that's what I'd like to talk about.

Until 2013, this "new Bridgwater" proposal would have been impossible. Motorway services had to be six miles apart. That rule has now gone.

As a consumer, I should probably say it's good how, if people don't like the old Bridgwater, they can visit the new one. That's competition.

There will always be the traditionalist in me - the historian who finds the old ways of doing things more interesting - who says that can't be right. What if every junction turned into a load of service stations fighting over each other for trade?

Colsterworth Roundabout sign
A-roads already have confusing signs for 'Services' in all directions, so why don't we embrace the idea?

It all sounds very American. You turn off at an exit and see a McDonald's on your left, a KFC on your right. Petrol straight ahead.

The words "sounds American" usually fill people with horror, but guess what, it's already happened. Many of our motorway exits have drive thrus, supermarkets and petrol stations very close to them, even though they aren't official service stations.

Only a few days ago there was talk about the new Costa drive thru on the M6, which would have big signs to grab your attention as you drive past at J14.

These businesses could have invested in motorway service areas, but they all looked at the regulations and decided they didn't want to. They decided that local knowledge, a visible location and internet search engines would be enough to keep them busy. And they were right.

In 2013, the government pretty much washed its hands of the idea of regulating motorway service areas. These places no longer need to be evenly spaced, or focused on the travelling public. They are allowed to be placed at frankly ridiculous junctions.

If we are getting to the point where we are going to give motorists on the M5 a choice of two places to stop at the next exit, perhaps we should give them the full list of facilities available nearby?

Perhaps we should... abandon the concept of full service areas?

I'm being controversial. I'm being an irritated historian. But I stand by it.

If car drivers are going to stop off at supermarkets and coffee shops whether we put signs up or not, and if the government want every motorway junction to become a food emporium, then perhaps we should accept that our system of randomly promoting a select few of these places as "official service areas" isn't in line with how the public are behaving?

Brand names on a road sign
Brand names on road signs are hated by professionals and regarded as tacky.
But are they key to making road signs relevant?

Under my ludicrous idea, truckers would get a bad deal. Truckers alredy get a bad deal - a topic I'd like to come back to.

But actually, if we allowed all the McDonald's to do the work of motorway service areas, my theory is that the places which do have space for trucks would then be able to concentrate on what lorry drivers want.

No, I can't say this is a world I want either. I feel dirty just for typing it.

Encouraging people to turn off the motorway to buy a burger defeats the point of having motorways. Encouraging coffee shops to turn every field into a car park defeats the point of having planning rules.

But we have already created a country where you have to drive into an industrial estate in Bridgwater if you want the M5 service station. And one where that same area is surrounded by ugly commercial developments.

I'm just wondering what the best way to deal with it is.

If you want to tell me I'm wrong or just leave anonymous abuse like half the internet seems to do these days, please use the comments box below.

© 2023 Johnathan Randall

Tedious about the author bit

Radio producer and travel historian. I love the places people pass through along their journey.

I research and write about how our need to get around continues to shape our world through roads, railways, airports and whole new towns.

My thoughts and/or research have been used by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, The Independent, Mail Online and Daily Mirror (detail).

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Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.

© 2023 Johnathan Randall.