It is a pretty obvious concept that service areas - which are built to serve motorists - should provide parking. Specifically, parking for all vehicles must be provided free for at least two hours, with more detail given below.
A significant portion of formal complaints regarding motorway service areas relate to parking. How can something so simple go so wrong? There appears to be a mismatch between what customers expect and what they are offered.
This page exists to provide a general overview. For specific queries and complaints you should contact the operator, who are likely to ask anybody complaining about a penalty charge to follow the appeals procedure sent to them.
All official motorway and A-road service areas - that is those with official road signs directing people to them - must provide at least two hours free parking for all road users who are entitled to use the facility. This free short stay must be provided regardless of whether the driver intends to leave the car or not. Older facilities may not be able to provide dedicated parking for each class of vehicle, instead relying on a generic 'long vehicles' area.
The two hour free period has been enshrined in government policy since 1979, on the basis that a motorway service area's primary function is to cater for the immediate needs of motorists and that two hours was considered sufficient. While motorway services can make handy places for car-sharing or meetings, this is not meant to be their priority. There is no rule that charges must apply after two hours, but convention is that all operators charge after two or three hours (four hours is common in Ireland). There is no rule preventing services from asking people to leave after two hours. Buying food or drinks does not absolve the customer of the need to pay for parking.
Note that the rule merely states that two hours free parking must be available, it doesn't state that all parking spaces must be free. There have been reports that some petrol stations are charging vehicles for parking, which they are entitled to do if free parking is available elsewhere. This is especially important on A-roads.
Although many services are struggling to cater for the demand for parking spaces, and the parking charges help manage this, mostly the charges are levied to increase the profitability of the business. This is why charges are usually steep, and for inflexible periods such as 24 hours.
Many people take issue with the charges being levied at night, when car parks are usually empty and tired drivers are encouraged to stop. Government policy doesn't agree that the charges are unfair.
Hotels and meeting rooms attached to services usually provide free parking as part of the booking, but registration plates must be provided upon arrival.
As part of the planning service, a safe and efficient circulatory system for vehicles and pedestrians must be established both along the main roads and within the parking areas. There is no preferred layout, but pedestrians should be kept away from traffic where possible, while maintaining good visibility at crossing points.
As service areas are private property, over the years some unusual road layouts can crop up. Signs and markings should be of a standard design, not branded signage as became common in the early 2000s.
Many services have been built at very busy roundabouts. There are now several sites that frequently find that traffic cannot leave quick enough, creating long queues in the car park. Unfortunately the control of traffic trying to join the roundabout is the responsibility of the highway authority and not the service area operator.
Service area operators are responsible for maintaining all roads, footpaths and parking areas on their site, and should be contacted if there is a safety concern.
The exact point responsibility transfers is normally by the site limits, and can usually be identified by a slight change in the age of the tarmac, by a wooden fence running close to the road, by white dots painted in the middle of the road or by the start and end of motorway signs.
Separate parking should be provided for coaches, caravans, lorries and abnormal loads, with drive-through parking bays preferred, and additional disabled spaces and electric vehicle charging points. It is no longer necessary to provide separate parking for hotel users.
The minimum number of spaces that must be provided is calculated relative to the traffic on the road. Most developers will allocate an additional area of land which can be used to provide additional parking spaces, instead of the previous method of adding haphazard overflow parking areas.
Following the closure of Tebay caravan park, there are now no dedicated caravan parks at service areas, although there is no rule preventing one opening. Most operators will not allow caravans to be pitched in any parking area. Coach interchanges are also permitted.
Nationally there is a severe shortage of HGV parking spaces, especially along motorways. Dedicated lorry parks are permitted and starting to open. Only ones positioned away from the motorway network are allowed to double-up as an operating centre.
All motorway services were originally required to offer free parking, at all times, and to monitor their sites for vehicles which had been abandoned. In 1966, following reports of abuse, services were allowed to install signs allowing parking for "a reasonable period of rest and refreshment only".
In 1979, the Prior Report proposed a number of changes to make services more profitable, the theory being that this would mean they could improve the service they offered. This is where the two hour minimum free parking period was introduced. As early as 1983, it was standard practice to charge those who stay: a normal overnight parking charge could be £3.50, and the charge for failing to pay would be £13.50. Clamping soon became common.
It was in 1966 that a ban on using cooking appliances in the car park was introduced, as there had been several incidents caused by carelessness and there were concerns that some sites had been designed with fuel pipes running under the car park. This rule is no longer enforced.
Enforcement and Parking Charges
Most service areas outsource the management of their car parks to a private parking enforcement company (usually Group Nexus or ParkingEye). Traditionally, this involved a dedicated employee walking around and ensuring everybody who needed to pay had done so. Now the management is carried out remotely, with number plate recognition cameras. This is where service stations receive most of their complaints.
The government's Valuation Office Agency have stated that at service stations, "the income generated by [parking] penalties is significant" (source). They suggest that most sites split the revenue 50/50 between themselves and the enforcement company.
The cameras record the number plate of everybody entering and leaving the site, and issue charges to anybody who exceeds the free limit and hasn't paid. The enforcement companies are notorious for their difficult appeals processes. Note that being within the site for two hours is not exactly the same as being parked for two hours. Where somebody has been stuck in traffic in the car park, the operator should cancel all charges. There have been reports of frequent customers being wrongly charged
Large signs are placed at the entrance and exit to every service area explaining that charges apply, as well as around the car park and the building. Despite this, people regularly contact us to say they didn't see them. Broken down vehicles must speak to staff for advice.
Enforcement is also carried out against vehicles which park in the wrong place, although this is less common as it requires staff intervention. Issues with incorrectly parked vehicles should be reported to a member of staff on duty. The practice itself is nothing new, and penalty charges for staying too long have been in place since the early 1980s.
There is one known exception to the rules, which is at Stansted. As it is built on airport land, the service area enforces a strict and detailed parking enforcement policy.
Appealing A Parking Charge
Issues with the enforcement process used to be sent to the operator, and gestures of goodwill were quite common. Due to the volume of enquiries received, they will now normally refuse to intervene and instead tell you to make a formal appeal with the parking company.
Making an appeal with a parking company can be a frustrating experience, as they are very black-and-white about how they enforce the rules. There used to be a well-circulated internet rumour that if you ignored the charge it would go away, but this has been proven to be untrue.
This website is not in a position to advise people looking to fight private parking charges, and you should seek professional help, or a dedicated advice service, if you need it.
As an example, as of 2019, Moto's website states "it is not our intention to charge drivers who marginally exceed the parking restrictions", implying that there ought to be some leniency. Welcome Break generally refuse to enter into any correspondence about the subject at all.
How To Pay
At motorway service areas three parking charges are normally applied: one for cars, and two for all other vehicle types, with the option of including a food voucher.
Information on the charges and how to pay is detailed in each parking area. Where available, we provide that information in our database, but we would always encourage you to direct your enquiry to the operator.
Charges are normally paid in the shop or restaurant, with the option to pay in cash. Many services encourage you to pay by phone, usually with the option of paying retrospectively.
At dedicated truckstops, parking spaces may sometimes be booked in advance.
Service area operators are responsible for ensuring their parking areas, as with the rest of the site, are safe. Historically the backs of car parks, and especially the lorry parks, have been difficult areas at night.
Operators are encouraged to secure the HGV parking with fencing and CCTV, but this is not mandatory and is rarely provided. It is more common at dedicated truckstops.
The majority of the text above applies to motorway service areas.
Official service areas signposted from A-roads, especially the smaller ones, are expected to follow the same policies but can struggle to reach these standards, especially if they were built as a family-run site.
The most common problem is that while the petrol station might consider itself an official service area, an adjacent restaurant or hotel may not. This means that the restaurant will not appreciate non-customers using their car park, but motorists are not able to tell the difference. To avoid any doubt, if the motorist is looking for free parking or toilets, they should head towards the petrol station.
Many small services can only handle a limited number of HGVs. Where no HGVs can be accommodated, this should be explained on the signs, and drivers of all long vehicles should expect not to be able to stop.