A rest area is like a motorway service area, only it doesn't need to provide fuel or food.
In 1965, when the M6 was built through Cumberland and Westmorland, the local authorities suggested motorists might like to take advantage of the good views here by using parking areas provided every six miles. The Ministry of Transport preferred the idea of building services every 12 miles, not wanting the motorway network to be filled with leisure drivers. They also looked at building car parks at every motorway junction. Similar arguments were made for the M50 through Worcestershire, although that was before motorway services had been finalised as a concept.
In 1973, one government parliamentary secretary was impressed by French motorway picnic areas, and suggested the UK did the same. The Department for Transport experimented with one at Sedgemoor (then called Brent Knoll), but it was soon sold to different operators following upkeep problems. The whole experience was later summarised as "unfavourable".
In the 1990s a similar thing was trialled with the creation of a council-run 'picnic area' at Chester on the M56, and several 'emergency facilities' along the M40. Both sites were deemed inadequate, with Chester also having safety problems and being upgraded to become a motorway service area, while the sites along the M40 were only a temporary provision until more services opened along that road.
In 2008 the Department for Transport held a review of their policy on roadside facilities, where rest areas were brought up again as a possible solution to current problems with motorway services, namely concerns about their quality and lack of capacity. The idea was approved.
Meanwhile, a small service area on the A74 at Todhills was due to close as the road was being upgraded to motorway and the facilities were deemed unnecessary and inappropriate for motorway traffic. Following the new policy, the services were able to continue trading as a rest area.
In 2010, the Highways Agency published a list of the gaps between all the existing motorway facilities and compared them to the criteria set out in Circular 01/2008, in the hope that this will encourage more developers to come forward.
Even so, Todhills was the only rest area until 2014, where Leeming Bar was allowed to survive the upgrade of the A1 to motorway, despite being isolated from the road network. The signage for it is inconsistent and sporadic.
Meanwhile, Scotch Corner, also an old A1 service area, was signed as a rest area during the road upgrade.
As set out in Circular 01/2008, rest areas must provide at least the following facilities, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, while complying with all current and future equality legislations:
- Free parking for up to two hours for all types of vehicle, including those making repairs.
- Free toilets and hand-washing facilities for all road users, with no obligation to make a purchase.
- Parent/carer and child facilities containing baby-changing amenities
- Access to a signed, free, private breastfeeding area.
- Access to a cash-operated telephone (card phones alone will not suffice).
- A free picnic area, with at least 10 tables with seats for six.
- Free play area for children.
- Access for those carrying out duties for and on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport.
The number of parking spaces and toilets required is calculated using the same formula as that for rest areas, except the figures should be halved, and rounded upwards if appropriate.
The signing for a rest area is the same as that of a motorway service area, only with "services" substituted for "rest area". The only other differences are that the ½ mile sign may not contain an operator's headboard, and that they may not be signed from a distance greater than a mile.
As of 2016 the rest area signs are now included in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions. Until then, special authorisation was required.