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 services. It was a detailed investigation which saw interviews with the public and all the operators (who only agreed to be involved if the criticisms would be levied anonymously).
Published in 1978 by the Committee of Inquiry into Motorway Service Areas, it was headed by Peter Prior and known as the Prior Report.
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 criticised the current system themselves.
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 criticism was justified: prices weren't unduly expensive and when they were it was due to excessive government tax and regulation; profit margins were typically around 2% and a third of service stations were making a loss. Continental service stations weren't as favourable when compared like-for-like.
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.
- Machine-only catering now allowed.
- Regulation moved away from the Department of Transport and to the MSA Board, instead of a quango.
- Rent rebates for operators who exceed quality targets.
- Allowed selling one brand of fuel.
- Fuel prices added to increase competition signs, in exchange for operator names being added too.
- Banks and foreign exchange permitted.
- Parking charges permitted.
- Introduction of a star-rating system for services (not introduced).
- Hotels permitted at services (within reason).
- Call for more government subsidies (not introduced).
- Adjacency rule officially lifted.
- Spacing of service areas would now be decided on a case-by-case basis, with no rigid rules applied.
- Recommended more truckstops (not really introduced).
- Controversial new service station proposals were considered and it was agreed green belt land was worth protecting in some areas.
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.