What will happen next at Solihull?

What will happen next at Solihull?

Recently I sat through the entire sitting of Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, so that you wouldn't have to.

I made the sacrifice because I knew councillors would be using the meeting to discuss and decide on the two new motorway service areas which had been proposed for the Solihull area, one of which they had been advised to approve.

One of these, proposed by Applegreen-Welcome Break, was to be built at M42 J4 near Shirley. The other, proposed by Extra, was to be built at M42 J5A near Catherine-de-Barnes, a junction which is itself currently under construction.

There weren't many surprises. For the most part, it was a bingo scorecard of NIMBYism. Residents had to be interrupted during their long, rehearsed speeches about traffic, the green belt and letting children play.

One person pointed out - quite rightly - that if the M42 J5A option was taken, the new service area would make up 65% of the traffic at that new junction. A scary statistic. But once you think about it, a bigger number is a good thing.

The number of people who would stop at a service area is roughly a fixed number, so if you placed it at a busier junction you would get worse traffic, even if it was a smaller percentage.

Many people raised concerns about the additional traffic leaving the motorway causing congestion and harming the environment, but then one person stood up and suggested that anybody who needs to use a service station should simply make the 13 mile detour to Hopwood Park.

So, extra traffic using your roundabout is a problem, but extra traffic doing 13 mile journeys to somebody else's roundabout isn't going to cause any pollution or congestion?

The more alarming aspect of the debate came when the discussion moved to road safety. Highways England have the power to effectively block any proposal that they think is dangerous, and even if they have a poor record, we have to accept that they are still the arbitrators of what is and isn't safe.

In the case of Extra's J5A proposal, we were told that Highways England had given it a very unconvincing approval: "the safety issues are outweighed by the benefit of the extra facility".

We were repeatedly told that this option required a startling five breaches of highway engineering standards. Another scary figure. When they were actually listed, it turned out that two of them were very minor (and could easily have been fixed), and another two of them were actually the same problem counted twice: J5A would be too close to J6 when travelling northbound, and the distance would be the same when travelling southbound.

Even so, I agree that's not good. But if you want advice on motorway engineering standards, you really should trust Highways England over some local councillors. Highways England approved it and that should be all that matters.

In what was the most shameful moment of the debate, an expert from Highways England was brought in to explain the safety issues, but they were immediately removed after the councillors agreed that they already knew all there was to know about the issue.

Assuming that they were short of time - and trust me, we all wanted it to get a move on, that wasn't a good look. Especially as, given his later comments, at least one of those councillors didn't appear to actually understand who Highways England were.

The M42: busy, constrained and with nowhere to stop.

Unsurprisingly, with this standard of debate, both proposals were unanimously voted down by the councillors. I don't blame them.

The role of councillors is to represent the concerns of their residents. Protecting green space, stopping traffic and improving road safety are all big concerns of local residents.

Service stations aren't provided for the benefit of local residents. They are pieces of national infrastructure for the benefit of people travelling through your region.

For the residents, a service station will only ever be a net disbenefit. The councillors were right to reject it on this basis.

That's why we had to listen to the ridiculous suggestion from one councillor that because she regularly drives 96 miles without stopping, that means nobody should ever need to stop.

No, you can sneer at people who can't go 96 miles without buying a coffee or a burger if you want. But if you're driving and you're feeling unwell, or you need to check your vehicle, or make a phone call, or your child needs the toilet, or your child is about to be sick, or you're running out of driving hours - you need somewhere to stop.

About 20 years ago it may have been socially acceptable to stop on the hard shoulder to let your child go to the toilet or get some fresh air. That has changed now. The side of the road was dangerous then, but it's lethal now, and roads like the M42 through Solihull don't even have a permanent hard shoulder.

In any sensible country, parking places and free toilets would be available every 10 miles. In Britain, councils and governments refuse to get involved by that, so instead it's up to private investors who inevitably have to turn the idea into a shopping centre so that it can justify the investment.

It is a real failure of policy that such important features of road safety have to mellow in the local planning system like it's another supermarket or local coffee shop.

Speaking of supermarkets, several councillors pointed out that there could be no need for any new service stations, because Solihull already has a 24 hour Tesco.

Ignoring for a moment the fact that I thought they were against extra traffic using local facilities, this suggestion shows complete ignorance to the fact that HGVs cannot take a break or refuel at Tesco, or the fact that service stations are at their busiest on a Sunday evening, when even the 24 hour Tesco is closed.

The overriding fact of the matter is that, according to the goverment's policy, the gap in service stations on the M42 means that a new one has to be built. That shouldn't be up for debate.

That's precisely why this issue won't go away. It hasn't gone away since it was first raised in 1969, and it will keep coming back until that gap is filled.

Over at Kings Langley, residents who object to the service area proposed there for personal reasons do at least maturely acknowledge that one is needed.

Back at Solihull, I respect the residents' concerns which clearly have some merit, as their points have been upheld every time. But the objectors won't be offered a much-deserved break until the issue is resolved.

If either Applegreen or Extra decide to appeal the councillor's decision, it will go to a public inquiry. This is nothing for them to fear: almost all service stations were approved at a public inquiry, after the local councillors voted against them.

The public inquiry will consider the concerns about road safety, both in terms of engineering and the need for new facilities, from the perspective of policy and evidence rather than "what locals reckon".

I don't know for sure that a public inquiry will approve either of them, but I can be sure that it would be more sympathetic.

Extra's famous Cobham services, built after a long public battle, gives us some idea what to expect from them.

I just wish we hadn't wasted all this time exchanging local concerns and skipped straight to the public inquiry stage instead - where residents will be obliged to raise those concerns again, anyway.

From the point of view of a road user, I think the need for either facility is established and non-negotiable. I think that Extra's proposal at Catherine-de-Barnes, which is the larger for the two, will provide a much better facility for its users, with a higher capacity inside and more space for much-needed HGV parking.

More importantly, I think that the relatively quiet M42 J5A is the best place on the very constrained motorway to build a facility like this. I think history has shown us repeatedly that building at an already complicated junction like M42 J4 will prove to be frustrating for motorists, which will create new safety issues and put people off using it, making it the weaker of the two proposed locations.

I totally understand the concerns of residents who are local to both proposals, who raise additional factors that should be considered. But as a road user, that is my assessment.

It is all academic for the time being. Unless either developer wants to appeal, and until somebody wants to register a new proposal, the issue is on hold. The residents have a reprieve, for now.

© 2023 Johnathan Randall

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Travel historian, travel reporter, and radio producer. 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 published by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, Mail Online and The Independent (detail).

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© 2023 Johnathan Randall.