Motorway service stations tend to be functional rather than inspirational, offering standard food and provisions from well-known high-street brands.
In Gloucester, a different type of motorway service station has opened between junctions 11A and 12 of the M5. It not only offers freshly prepared food made from locally grown produce, but also provides significant funding for local community projects and employment opportunities for residents who live on nearby housing estates.
The idea to set up a service station that benefited the local community first came 21 years ago when Mark Gale was working on neighbourhood development projects in the area. "At the time we had a cooperative of 10 neighbourhood projects," he says. "Through that work, the idea came from talking to people on the Matson housing estate." Gale is now chief executive of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, a local regeneration charity and a partner in Gloucester Services.
A study trip to the US galvanised Gale's belief that it was possible to open large projects that could benefit the wider community. He says: "What I learned in the US was not to be frightened of scale in social and community business. There is nothing wrong with a small community organisation aspiring to be a bigger social-purpose business."
But turning the vision into reality has been a long and, at times, tortuous affair. It wasn't until 2002 that Gale began to investigate properly the possibility of opening a service station on the site, and it was a further five years before he found partners who shared the same values and could offer practical support and finance. After receiving support from Co-operative Futures, the cooperative business consultancy, Gale formed the partnership Westmorland, a family-owned company that runs Tebay Services off the M6 in Cumbria.
In 2010, the partners were granted planning permission for Gloucester Services and it was hoped building work would begin soon after. But then the large motorway services operators either side of the proposed site began legal proceedings to overturn the decision. Gale says: "The case went all the way to the Court of Appeal but was kicked out. The operators did everything they could to keep a partnership between a family business and a charity off the motorway network. It was a difficult time, but we believed that we had something worth fighting for."
Building work finally started on the northbound services in 2013 and it opened in May 2014. The southbound services are due to open towards the end of May this year. The project has cost about £40m, says Gale.
Compared with most motorway services, Gloucester Services looks more like a farm shop, says Gale. It is also adorned with artwork about the neighbouring area to celebrate its link to the local community. A fruit and vegetable-growing community project has also been established, which Gale says will provide opportunities for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues to get involved on the site.
The northbound element now employs about 150 people, about half of whom have been trained through its academies programme or who come from the Gloucester neighbourhoods of Matson, Tuffley, Podsmead and White City and the nearby town of Stonehouse. A further 150 people are being recruited for the southbound services, with about half of these expected to come from the trust's target neighbourhood or programmes.
In addition, the trust expects to receive about £10m over the next 20 years from Gloucester Services to invest in nearby charities and community organisations.
Gale believes that other community groups can learn from what has been achieved in Gloucester. "Too many of us have carried out regeneration programmes that have lasted five years at best but have offered no real jobs at the end," he says. "This, however, is something that's long term and will help generations to come. We haven't done this to set up a motorway service station; we've done this to support our neighbourhoods."