HL Deb 16 January 1985 vol 458 cc1034-64

7.36 p.m.

The Earl of Bessborough rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made in discussions with the French Government regarding the building of a cross-channel fixed link.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. As I told my noble friend Lord Brabazon, I should also like to ask him whether the Government have had discussions with other member states in the European Community and the European Commission on this subject; and also whether the European Commission itself has produced any proposals or communications to the Council of Ministers. I know that there has been Community involvement.

At the outset I should perhaps declare an interest—not a financial one—in as much as I am half French and for 65 years, ever since the end of the First World War, have constantly been crossing the Channel. As a child when visiting my French grandparents and other relations, I may say that I was frequently seasick in front of my parents and other distinguished personages crossing the Channel. Then in the late 1930s my first job was in the League of Nations secretariat, which involved frequent visits through France to Geneva and elsewhere on the continent. If your Lordships will allow me this little autobiographical note, in 1940, during the Second World War, I was in France, coming out via Dunkirk. Later I was a military liaison officer with the French forces of both Generals Giraud and de Gaulle. After the liberation of Paris, I was five and a half years in the embassy there.

As a Minister in the mid-1960s I was in close touch with my science and technology counterparts in the French Government. Finally, more recently as a Member of the European Parliament, I was, like the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and other noble friends in your Lordships' House, crossing the Channel often twice a week, and even now still visit France regularly. I feel virtually as at home there as in Britain. They are my two countries.

I have at all events had to cross the Channel so many hundreds of times—nay, perhaps a thousand times—that I have always been concerned at having to chafe at seaports and airports before crossing to the other side. Sometimes, indeed, like the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, I have found that these British offshore islands seemed, especially at this time of the year, cut off by weather from the contintent, with which, after all, we are now so closely associated in the EC. It has always seemed to me, therefore, that if we are truly to belong to the European Community and pledged, as we are, to remove technical barriers to travel and trade, there should be a fixed link across the water.

I was therefore particularly glad to read the joint statement by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and President Mitterrand on 30th November 1984, recognising the importance of a fixed link as technically feasible and financially viable and announcing the setting up of a Franco-British working group to advise on requirements as a matter of real urgency—and I underline the word "real".

Then I have also noted the press notice which was issued on 10th January by the Department of Transport after the first meeting of this group on that day. In that press notice are given the terms of reference which were defined as follows: to advise Ministers on— the way in which the two Governments should be ready to facilitate the construction of one or other form of fixed link between the UK and France, it being understood that there will be no support from public funds and no Government guarantees against commercial risks either in relation to construction or exploitation". Secondly, to advise on: the undertakings which would be given by the two Governments against political risk". Thirdly, to advise Ministers on: the guidelines to be defined by the two Governments, for example, on safety, the environment and any constraints affecting commercial exploitation on the basis of which groups interested in promoting, financing, constructing and operating a fixed link can submit proposals to the two Governments". Finally, to advise Ministers on: Information required from these groups to enable the two Governments to make a choice between proposals". I understand also that the group have agreed on an intensive programme of work covering all areas on which promoters need guidance. I also note that the group will be meeting again next week and that their advice would be submitted by the end of next month. This speed is very encouraging.

I have of course read the report of the other UK-French study group which was presented to Parliament by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport in June 1982. I have also studied the proposals of the British Tunnel Group itself and the Inland Transport Council. I am indebted to both of these bodies for very useful briefing. From these it is clear that our French friends strongly favour a link and the Inland Transport Council state that a rail tunnel should be built now—and they put "now" in capital letters, underlined. In the view of the Tunnel Group, a twin bored 7-metre rail tunnel would be the type of fixed link likely to meet the necessary criteria.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, seems unfortunately to have left us at the moment, but I hope he will return. Like him and the former French Minister, M. Jules Moch, I have never been very enthusiastic about a tunnel which, as I understand it, would only be able to cater for a two-way railway link. I believe this would result in delays and bottle-necks getting road transport on to trains.

Also experience with other tunnels has not greatly reassured me. I understand that the road tunnel under Mont Banc has not been altogether satisfactory due to problems of ventilation and gradients—to say nothing of the Dartford Tunnel bottlenecks and the recent grave accident in the Todmorden rail tunnel in Yorkshire.

I have indeed always been in favour of at least some bridging element in the fixed link and was much more interested in the Detweiler Project proposed, I think, some 12 years ago, for a bridge with an island on the sandbanks in the middle of the Channel, which would have provided various services. I have also been interested in the Euro Route Project which your Lordships know would combine both bridging and tunnelling and is supported by British Steel with Sir Nigel Broackes of Trafalgar House as chairman. I was told yesterday that it is also supported by my noble friend Lord Soames, who particularly asked me to say how much he regretted that he was unable to be present this evening for he was certainly in favour of the link.

The Euro Route proposals have received considerable press coverage and appear, according to the media, to be the front runners. I am also grateful to this group for reasoned and comprehensive briefing which I hope is available to all your Lordships. However, I have also looked carefully at, and am even more attracted by, the proposals of the Eurobridge Study Group, which I must confess at present I favour. I am very happy that my noble friend Lord Layton, who is associated with this group, and who I am glad to see sitting on our Benches, is to speak on this project this evening. I shall listen to him intently, and especially his answers to the bridge problems summarised in Annexe B, page 31, of the Report of the UK/French Study Group which I have already mentioned and which was presented to Parliament in June 1982.

As I understand it, the Eurobridge Study Group scheme, which I believe might employ some 60,000 to 70,000 workers, would consist of a bridge with seven spans and six piers, the spans being built of new fibre materials which would be much lighter than steel and enable each span to be of some 5,000 metres in length. I read with great interest the summary of the Eurobridge Study Group proposals, which is, I believe, available in the Printed Paper Office and the Library. I hope that this evening my noble friend Lord Layton will elaborate on that project, because frankly I think it is most imaginative and should provide a link which will meet the needs of cross-channel traffic more effectively and in a longer term than other proposals that have been put forward.

When your Lordships note that four-fifths, that is to say 80 per cent., of all traffic in Europe now goes by road, it seems to me essential to cater for this by some kind of road bridge using these new fibre materials such as Parafil made from Kevlar. Use of these very light materials in the Atlantic and in North Sea oil exploration seems to have proved their strength and durability for suspension bridges with such very long spans.

If it is thought that these materials have been adequately tested and proven, as I am told they have been, then I think what is proposed by the Eurobridge Study Group—a seven-span, four-level motorway bridge, with two four-lane decks and two two-lane decks in sheathed spans—is the most interesting. I believe too that such a group could well afford to build a rail tunnel as well, to satisfy British and French railway requirements and accommodate the French Train de Grande Vitesse, that is to say, the "very high speed train". I recognise that the Government require the scheme to be financed by private enterprise and I should hope that the bridge scheme would prove attractive to banks, investors generally and even Governments.

Certainly one noble Lord, who is chairman of a well-known bank, the noble Lord, Lord Catto, of Morgan Grenfell (who also regrets not being present this evening), confirmed to me over the weekend that he believes it would be financially viable and that it should not be impossible to raise on the world market the necessary £4.7 billion sterling for the bridge and the tunnel. Sums larger than this have been raised for other projects. In this respect, the financial section of the Eurobridge Study Group report is of interest inasmuch as the group's proposals avoid reliance on any form of Government involvement in finance unless, as I say, Governments choose to invest. As I see it, this group's only request would be confirmation by Government that were the project to be cancelled for purely political reasons, outlays already incurred would be reimbursed. I believe that Governments might accept this.

I accept that tonight my noble friend Lord Brabazon may not be able to give very positive replies other than to say that both governments are in principle certainly very well disposed to such a link. I recognise that we must wait for the Anglo-French working party report at the end of February. Nonetheless, I would be glad to hear from my noble friend the Government's preliminary views in the hope that this very long-running Anglo-French fairy tale may now become a reality and bring our two beloved neighbour countries, not always in agreement about certain things, closer together and thus able to understand each other better. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name.

7.51 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, we must all be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, for raising this Question. He has chosen a most appropriate time. When something is happening on the whole question of a Channel link, it is well worth having a look at the problem. The fact that the French and British governments are getting together again is a great encouragement to those of us who have always felt the need for a Channel link.

I can perhaps give, as the noble Earl did, a little reminiscence about my experience of the Channel link. Ten years ago this month—the coming Sunday is, I believe, the anniversary—the late Anthony Crosland, then Secretary of State for the Environment, announced the Government's formal withdrawal from the treaty with the French government and the arrangements with the private consortia to proceed with plans to construct a tunnel giving a fixed link between Britain and the European mainland. The reasons for the decision, very reluctantly taken, were many and very complicated. Perhaps we were all too starry-eyed and euphoric. We expected too much. There was talk of a London-Paris journey time of 2 hours 43 minutes which would itself be reduced when new, very fast high-speed trains, already under experimental test in both Britain and France, were brought on stream.

However, it entailed on the British side a special link between London and Cheriton near Folkstone for which British Rail gave a first estimate of £120 million. On re-examination, following various demands made upon it. British Rail had to revise this estimate up to £373 million. I do not blame British Rail too much for this. No major rail link had been built in Britain since the turn of the century. Certainly, no rail link had been built, or contemplated, through densely populated and extremely valuable areas in the stockbroker belt. It reached the point where we felt that the only way in which people in that area could be satisfied was to build a tunnel from London to Dover and then continue from Dover across the Channel. There were other costs that were not apparent. And the Secretary of State had no alternative but to ask for time to look at the phasing of the project with a view still to saving it. All of us wanted to save it. I was involved in many of the discussions.

Another difficulty was that during that period there were two general elections in one year. It was 1974. While the other place and this House act very well, we sometimes grind rather slowly. To get the necessary permission for the project through both Houses would have taken a great deal longer, than, at a time of two elections, it was possible to give. In an adjournment debate following the decision officially to cancel the project announced by Anthony Crosland on 20th January 1975, many Members took part. Some of them now sit in this House. I know that I speak on behalf of my noble friend, Lord Mulley, with whom I was closely involved on the tunnel project, when I say that we were anxious to find a way of continuing the scheme.

It will perhaps mean something to many Members, who have been involved for a long time in the whole project, when I say that during the Christmas recess I was rereading some of the many debates, answers to Questions and statements on the subject of a fixed link across the Channel. To anyone like myself—a number of noble Lords have even more experience than I have—it requires not just a few hours during a recess but perhaps the whole of a very long recess just to scratch the surface of the literature that has built up.

As well as being Parliamentary Secretary with some responsibility for the Channel link, I also had the good fortune to serve on the Select Committee when, again, schemes old and new were submitted by powerful, and in some cases hopeful, groups. It will, I am sure, be the experience of many noble Lords that a point is reached, no matter how much new information is given, when the intellectual process has acute indigestion. One finds oneself reverting to an originial hunch or "gut" decision using, however unscientifically or irrationally, the new facts to support this perhaps inelegant reasoning. It always seemed to me—I am speaking here particularly about a tunnel—that a big hole in the ground, while expensive to dig, was thereafter a reasonably cheap permanence. But the most important single factor for myself coming from the northern part of these islands, was the linking of the rail systems of Britain and those of Continental Europe. This was my principal reason for wanting a Channel link.

Despite my belief that there can be no end to submissions on the subject from all sorts of sources and the certainty that, even if nothing is done for another 10 years, there will be still greater amounts of paper to read through, there is one submission in all that I have read that cannot be easily pushed aside. It is the, I consider, masterly analysis of all the options by Professor Sir Alec Cairncross in his report commissioned by Anthony Crosland and my right honourable friend, now Lord Mulley. Sir Alec's evidence to the Select Committee was most powerful. It clarified for all Members of the Committee the crucial points and arguments in the 100-odd years of debate that have taken place on this matter.

The Select Committee had the opportunity to visit the site at Cheriton and saw the progress that had been made on the service tunnel. They watched the boring machine at work. We also visited the French end of the proposed tunnel and noted that the French government had put their machine in mothballs—I do not know whether it is still there but for many years it was on the hill just outside Calais—with a view to using it on the project at a later date. The British machine was dismantled and, I believe, sold for scrap. The belief was that we had learned enough from digging the two miles of the service tunnel and that, if required, a new machine that was more efficient could be built. That seems to me reasonable.

Your Lordships will perhaps think from the tenor of my remarks that I have dismissed the idea with little thought of any link other than a tunnel. That is really not so. The noble Earl mentioned one of the designs that really fascinated me for a period. I can think of few things more exciting than to drive across the Straits of Dover, perhaps particularly at holiday time—not if you are going on an official job to the Council of Europe, or to Geneva—and to stop, as one design that was mentioned in the noble Earl's speech suggested, in a tunnel in the centre, with a restaurant there. That sounded very attractive and it was one possibility to which I gave great thought.

The major and obvious difference between a tunnel scheme and any of the surface links is as I have tried to indicate earlier. We know the type of machine required to build a tunnel. We know the type of strata in which we should be working and we know even what we should do with the chalk spoil from the borings. All the test borings on the line of the tunnel are, I believe, still available, at either Dover or Calais. The records have been preserved—I think they were bought by the two Governments—so that the preliminary work on a tunnel would be minimal though it would still be a major feat of organisation and logistics.

I should like to spend a few minutes on a brief look at some of the other schemes. None of the other schemes is anything like so advanced. No matter how expert the people who have put forward the various schemes—and I have met many of them—none is really so well advanced. The viaducts, the islands in the immersed tubes, plus the rail-only tunnel in the submerged tube—I think that is the Euro Route suggestion—leave a great deal to be desired. I am sure that noble Lords who have been looking at the subject will realise that the type of dredging required for the submerged tube in such a busy waterway raises problems that it is not possible to skip over and leave without a great deal of thought.

The question of ventilation is another very important point which to my mind has not been answered satisfactorily except by the two seven-metre diameter tunnels plus the four-and-a-half-metre service-tunnel-cum-ventilating-tunnel. So many new techniques are involved that I believe that, when we began to think in terms of starting dates, building schedules and trying to get contracts let, a great deal of time would have been lost. Perhaps we have got both Governments in a position where we may get something done now if we are ready to start relatively soon. If we have to wait much longer, and if we wait for answers to all the questions raised by the Euro Route, it may not be possible to get a start.

The suspension bridge is another wonderful idea and I was fascinated reading material on it in regard to the new techniques, the new materials and the new types of suspension. However, I still feel, as the Select Committee said, that it would be a major project at the limit of the state of the art. Particularly in aeronautics and defence contracts, all governments have had their fingers very badly burnt by going to the limit of the state of the art and then half a step beyond it. Again, I feel that there are a number of questions that have to be answered here. For instance, if it was an open bridge you would have the problem of high-sided vehicles that we have on the Severn Bridge. If it was not an open bridge, you get back perhaps less to a problem of ventilation than to the one of driver fatigue in driving all the way through a tunnel like that.

We are talking also of a bridge with spans two or perhaps even three times the size of those of the Humber Bridge, which at present are the longest spans we have. Even with new materials, I think you are going rather far. Therefore, with reluctance, I have come to the conclusion that if I want to see a cross-Channel link in my lifetime I have little option but to say that a tunnel could start within a very short time and the others could not do it nearly as quickly.

The only other point I wish to comment on in this regard is the suggestion for a drive-through tunnel instead of a rail tunnel. For me, a drive-through tunnel raises again much more sharply the questions of driver fatigue, fire hazard and breakdown in the tunnel, particularly if you have heavy lorries—40-tonne lorries—mixed with light cars, caravans, et cetera. Of course you also have the question of ventilation. When I was involved in it, I understood that if you had a drive-through tunnel, unless you had very special methods of ventilation the ventilating tunnel would need to be about twice the diameter of the running tunnels in order to get decent, clean air in the tunnels.

Having looked, I think with a fair amount of dispassionate enthusiasm, at all the schemes for the link, these are the reasons why I came down on the side of the tunnel, as of course did the Select Committee, which went into the matter with great thoroughness. There are only two other brief, though not small, points that I should like to make. I am referring to the problems which have been dealt with very fully both in Sir Alec Cairncross's submission and in the Select Committee submission of 1980. These relate to the danger of monopoly pricing in the early days, if a tunnel or a bridge were built, to ruin the ferry service and the over-dependence we could have on one mode of crossing once the ferries disappeared completely. This needs to be looked at very carefully, but perhaps now is not the time to do it. I have been speaking for too long. The evidence given by the Dover Harbour Board and the powerful case put by Sir William Harris need to be examined carefully.

The last point I should like to make—the Select Committee dealt with this at some length—is that there is the other option which we on the Select Committee called the do-nothing option; that is, just leave things as they are and allow the ports and the ships to take this ever-growing traffic that is building up on either side of the Channel. The growth has been quite phenomenal over the last 10 to 15 years.

I should like to finish on this point by quoting from the Select Committee Report. As I said, I was a member of the committee and on this particular point I agreed wholeheartedly with it. We said at paragraph 47: we have no reason to question the view that existing modes could, if necessary, be expanded to a capacity sufficient to cope with all forecast increases in the demand for cross-Channel traffic. There seems to us, however, to be no reason to reject the possibility of a fixed link on these grounds alone, particularly if in so doing we, or the Government, were to prevent the introduction of alternative services which would be profitable in themselves and would offer more convenient and comfortable services to passengers and freight hauliers". This is the view I take: that the cross-Channel link would be a boon to people on this side of the Channel and on the other side of the Channel and that the most likely way to get something done would be to go for a tunnel.

8.9 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I intervene just for a moment in this discussion. I feel I shall not be able to remain until the end of the debate, for personal reasons; I apologise. The noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, said that I was, in association with that great Frenchman and great European, the late M. Jules Moch, one of the promoters, as far back as 1962, of a scheme for a bridge-tunnel-bridge on the broad lines of that already existing in Chesapeake Bay. It was then the intention to construct cantilever bridges with comparatively short spans leading gradually down to two artificial islands in the Channel between which immersed tubes would carry both the road and the rail traffic involved. That was the general idea.

I still believe that this would, in theory, be a very good solution and a practicable one. But it failed to obtain approval nearly a quarter of a century ago—and I expect that a similar effort may well fail to obtain approval now—owing to the violent opposition of the shipping interests who maintained that the six or seven mile wide unimpeded channel between the two islands would not be sufficient for all the shipping traffic, and that in any case ships proceeding on either side of the channel would risk collision with the inevitably rather numerous piers. It may also be remembered by some that eventually General de Gaulle himself informed the unfortunate M. Moch that after profound study he himself was, as he said, "plutôt tunneliste"! That finished it.

So there may well only remain the alternative of first, a double rail tunnel which could handle most of the goods and passenger traffic and also provide for a shuttle service for cars and lorries; and, secondly, a bridge capable of handling all road traffic with, in addition, a broad single tunnel for railway passengers' use running below it or beside it. The first solution—that is, the tunnel—seems, if I read its report rightly, to be that favoured in principle by the United Kingdom-French study group in 1981, which however did not rule out the possibility of a bridge for all road traffic, provided that some pretty stringent provisions were met. But as the group also indicated, there is much to be said for a tunnel solution, provided always that it can be shown to be profitable—that is an important consideration—even though its disadvantage clearly would be that it would not permit the free flow of all traffic which other solutions provide. So we come down to the bridge plus an accompanying tunnel which is probably more likely to be financially viable in the sense of being sufficiently profitable to attract the necessary private capital, even granted the huge estimated total cost of nearly £5,000 million.

I am told that great progress has been made recently—and certainly since 1962—in protecting the piers against possible collision, even with giant supertankers; in contemplating spans of something like five kilometres, which of course—as I think someone has already said—is more than double the present record for suspension bridges; in strengthening all the materials to be used; and in protection against even the most powerful winds. I understand that research has more or less demonstrated that all these difficulties can be successfully overcome, and provided this really is so then it only remains to accept the forecast that the whole project will pay for itself in five to seven years for a decision to be taken to go ahead and thus to achieve the undoubtedly enormous political and eventually economic benefits resulting from a physical link between these islands and the rest of Western Europe. I consequently very much hope that the project will eventually be given the go-ahead in the comparatively near future.

Only two lingering doubts remain in my mind. In the first place, can suspension bridges with spans of five kilometres—although they dispose of the objections of the shipping interests—really be thought to be absolutely stable and proof against the possible collapse of any one of them? If so, all is well but we must take it that all the engineers and construction companies involved have absolutely no doubt that such expectation is justified.

And then there is, after all, in this wicked world still the danger of sabotage. For if once constructed the bridge was partially destroyed, repairs would presumably take a very long time and all during such a period the United Kingdom—save or course, in the air—would be virtually cut off from the mainland, seeing that other facilities for tranferring goods and passengers across the Channel could have, in the nature of things, by that time, almost totally disappeared. I do not say that this is an insuperabale objection; but much thought will have to be devoted to the problem of how to meet it before approval is given for the construction to begin.

In sum, and speaking as a completely non-expert, I can only express my hope that the remaining difficulties in the way of the establishment, at any rate, of some fixed link will shortly be overcome. If one takes the view that our future depends on the successful development of a new form of Western European Union, capable of being a real "partner" for America in a well-functioning Atlantic alliance, there is no doubt that a fixed link of some kind would greatly contribute towards this admirable and very desirable end.

8.16 p.m.

The Earl of Limerick

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bessborough has initiated a very timely discussion which might usefully have the effect of eliciting whether the political will is really emerging on both sides of the Channel to enable real work to start on a Channel crossing.

I have long been interested in the topic both in a general way and specifically—an interest which I declare—on behalf of a bank which has worked with contractors to make proposals for the twin-bore rail tunnel scheme. The tunnelling groups, as they are known, have now merged their interests. Like my noble friend Lord Bessborough I firmly believe that a fixed Channel link is both politically and economically desirable. Studies have shown that at least one of the proposals can also be economically viable. The question is: will political conditions be defined such as to make it possible?

I should like in this brief intervention to focus attention on some of the practical issues which will I believe determine whether this great concept can actually get off—or in a certain case perhaps get into—the ground. What is needed to enable contractual commitments finally to be given? The first requirement is that the role of the two sponsoring governments shall be defined as to the risks which they assume. This will require a protocol to be defined in fairly precise terms.

Specifically, we should look to the Anglo-French working group to do two things even if it does not come down firmly in favour of one proposal or another. The first requirement is to propose a negotiating mandate sufficiently firm to enable the rival consortia to commit real resources to researching and presenting firm proposals.

The second requirement from the working group is that it shall define for acceptance by the two governments the minimum political conditions for the commitment of private equity investment funds to the project, this being a condition of both the sponsor governments. I stress the word "equity" because unless and until such assurances are given in adequately defined terms, it follows that any funds put up—whether described as loans or by any other label—will lack the necessary backing to rank otherwise than as equity.

The second practical point is that a joint Anglo-French owning company will have to be set up. That will require its own regime which will be complex and will need to be precise. Consequently, it will need quite a time to establish. The third issue is the role of the EEC, and that likewise will require definition and will need the commitment of funds to back it. The EEC could be the ultimate guarantor for the debt, or perhaps a co-guarantor with the two sponsoring governments.

I should now like to mention one or two fundamental structural problems. The main structural difficulty with this particular project is that in the real sense it has no customer. If the two sponsoring governments were prepared to play a more active role, then they or their appointed agents could be the customer. However, they have consistently insisted upon it being a private sector project. and this means that the customer would have to be synthesised out of a group of interested parties—that is, initially the banks and the construction companies—with other investors being brought in subsequently. This is far from satisfactory, because all these parties have vested interests in the business opportunities arising from the project rather than in the commercial viability of the project itself.

Such an arrangement, therefore, is liable to give rise to severe conflicts of interest, and I believe that in consequence it is this fundamental difficulty which has given rise to the position that we have seen unfolding over the years. There has been a tendency for everyone concerned to pass the buck to someone else. The British have tended to criticise the French for their hesitancy; the French have tended to criticise the British for having aborted the last scheme; the British Government criticise the private sector for being unwilling to take a commercial risk; while the project promoters criticise the Government for failing to see that the Channel link is a classic mixed economy project. The Department of Transport reacts by passing the buck to a series of advisers, calling for reports and more study groups. So much for the structural difficulties.

I should like to dwell for a moment on one or two subjective or personal points. Considering the relative attractions or merits of a bridge or a tunnel, or something which is a hybrid, I can think of few things more delightful than to be driving across the Channel on a tine day with views of the two shores and a general feeling that it is nice to arrive at one's destination in such an agreeable manner. But we know—we have recently been reminded of it daily—that our climate is not always like that. Try to imagine how it would be driving across a bridge in thick fog or in a high wind. I would not find that a very nice experience. On the other hand, if we were to suffer the constant closing of a bridge or part-bridge link because the conditions were deemed too adverse, naturally we would also find that a very frustrating experience.

My noble friend Lord Bessborough referred to the Mont Blanc tunnel and the fact that that was not free of problems. Imagine a tunnel one, two or three times as long, and what would happen if there were a breakdown, if a car simply ran out of petrol at the wrong time, or if there were a spillage of a load from a large truck in the middle of the tunnel. Again, that is not a nice thought. and it must make one pause in considering the practicability of a drive-through tunnel. Such considerations, of course, are different for a rail tunnel.

Then there are politically sensitive questions. The effect on long-term employment in ports and ferries has to be set against the undoubted short-term employment benefits during the construction period, whatever scheme is used. There is the sensitive point of the nature of control of the approaches to the crossing (the bridge, the tunnel or the 50/50 arrangement) and the operation of those facilities—a contemplation of conditions in which they might be obstructed.

To conclude, I think that the time for decision on this project, so long delayed, is now fast approaching. A Channel fixed link is within the scope of current engineering technology. Given the political will and impetus, a rail tunnel at least—and I confess my not totally uninformed prejudice on the economics of that proposal—is a viable proposition. It is politically desirable; it is economically desirable. Perhaps we may hope that the response from my noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara on the Front Bench this evening will bring it a distinct step closer.

8.25 p.m.

Viscount Sidmouth

My Lords, it is timely that we should be debating this Unstarred Question put down by the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, a colleague on Sub-Committee F of the Select Committee of your Lordships' House on the European Communities. The chairman of that sub-committee, the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, has, with regret, been prevented from putting his name down to speak. That is all the more regrettable since his great-great-uncle, the then Lord Torrington, actually went out to sea, in the tunnel then being built under the Channel, with the chairman of the South Eastern Railway on 7th September 1884. I cannot, of course, speak for him, but I believe he is sorry that it has not yet reached the other side. Even at that time the idea had been around for 50 years; but in all that period the factors involved—political, financial and technical—have never been so favourable at one and the same time. So there is a feeling that it is now or never, both here and among our partners on the other side of the Channel.

It is my purpose to touch on two aspects out of several which lead me to believe that the answer should be to proceed as soon as possible. The first concerns rail transport, which, for technical reasons, has an indispensable role to play in any scheme involving a tunnel. This is because electric traction generates no fumes, and the trains themselves provide the air changes which are required for ventilation. But in addition to that there are sound reasons for affirming that rail is the transport mode best suited to take advantage of a fixed link. This is a route which will carry a considerable proportion of our export-import traffic with the other countries in the European Community, which already amounts to 50 per cent. of our total, increasing by 4 per cent. per annum. Such traffic is mostly long haul and over distances for which rail is the most economical mode of transport. This is because it tends to have higher terminal costs than road but is much cheaper for the actual movement.

Most of us tend to think of transport in terms of passengers, mainly because we encounter it most often in that capacity. There will certainly be important gains from a fixed link in terms of passenger services and transit times, but I believe that the improvement in the movement of freight will be equally impressive. To a degree this arises from a natural difference in the two types of traffic. Passengers have legs, and, with suitable signposting, they can transfer themselves between plane and plane or from one mode of transport to another. Moreover, they carry their essential documentation with them. A similar operation with freight involves complex transfer facilities which always add to the cost and lead to delays. The present situation on the Channel, for all the best efforts of the sea ferries, is an acute example of this. Apart from the costly alternative of air transport, the demand is met largely at present by roll-on roll-off road vehicles with a transfer at each end to and from sea transport.

Largely for this reason the present British Rail share of our export-import traffic is 2 per cent. In 1976—the latest date for which I have been able to obtain figures—this compared with 65.2 per cent. and 62.8 per cent. respectively for the Dutch and Italian railways, while the German railways' share was 22.3 per cent. and the French was 20.9 per cent. I submit that these comparisons confirm that a fixed link would provide British Rail with the opportunity to win new train and wagon-load traffic strictly on competitive lines without taking into account the environmental and other factors which make that a desirable result in itself.

I am aware that two of the three schemes for a fixed link currently being canvassed provide for a direct link by road as well. That would undoubtedly be an advantage worth having, bearing in mind the door-to-door facility so efficiently provided by road transport. But both schemes would be enormously costly, and I believe—and we have heard this confirmed tonight—that they face technical problems to which the answers have yet to be researched.

By comparison, the problems posed by the scheme for a twin seven-metre tunnel were mostly researched in the 1960s, before the 1973–74 scheme was agreed, and have recently been re-assessed and found satisfactory by the Anglo-French study group. I merely make the point that the scheme put forward by the Channel Tunnel group for rail tunnels does not rule it out from being practical and desirable, while also providing, in competition with the sea ferries, a fast and reliable crossing for road vehicles.

My second point is that the Channel fixed link is an important factor in the whole context of the European Community. No doubt there are those to whom that is a point against the scheme, but, after all, we are members of the Community and it is the declared aim of our Government to improve our relations with it. For their part, both the Commission and the European Parliament have indicated their interest in and support for the scheme, recognising it as a missing link in the pattern of European transport.

It is not generally realised that the Treaty of Rome identified transport as a suitable subject for a common policy in the same way as agriculture, and Article 74 and following articles spell out the need for such a policy to be developed. For historical reasons the continental railway systems of the European Community have a good record of collaboration in matters such as timetabling, compatibility of rolling stock, through booking and loading gauges. In recent years similar progress has been made with road vehicles. For obvious reasons British Rail has so far been rather isolated, but already a useful pool of rolling stock exists which is suitable for through train working and there should be no difficulty in building this up while the fixed link itself is being constructed.

It is difficult to quantify the effect on men's minds of a physical separation such as that presented by the Channel, but the common connotations of the word "insular" will illustrate that it is great. It is no light matter, therefore, that with a fixed link it will be possible to go down to Waterloo and buy a day return ticket to Paris. After all these years, that is still only an idea, but I believe it is an idea whose time has at last come.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, like others who have spoken. I very much welcome the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, has put this Question down this evening. The noble Earl has made a notable contribution to the European cause and, that being so, it is particularly appropriate that he has initiated this debate tonight.

This issue of some form of Channel link has been debated in this country and in France for well over a century and a half. That is a fair amount of time, even by our own not particularly exacting standards. At last there appears to be a serious prospect that some form of link will be constructed. I do not propose to get involved in the discussion about which of the alternative projects is best. Speaking entirely for myself, and, I suspect, for others, what most of us are keenest about is that from some form of link, should be agreed between the British and French Governments and proceeded with as speedily as possible.

Having said that, on the basis of the evidence I have seen, I lean, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, and the noble Earl. Lord Limerick, marginally in favour of the Channel tunnel, but it is, as I have said, only a marginal preference. I should make that clear at the outset.

There are three powerful arguments which justify urgent action by the Government. First, like the noble Viscount. Lord Sidmouth, I cannot believe that it is sensible for this country, which sends over 50 per cent. of its exports to other countries in the European Economic Community, to rely any longer exclusively on sea and air links with the Continent. I dislike intensely the degree of monopoly power exercised by the owners of the sea ferry routes. The Channel tunnel, or one of the other alternatives to it, would introduce a welcome element of competition. For that reason alone, I believe it deserves our support.

Secondly, the Channel tunnel—I take that again simply as an example—would undoubtedly be a great deal more efficient. It would take a mere 25 minutes to get commercial vehicles and private motorists across the Channel, compared with the endless delays which are sometimes experienced, particularly at the height of the summer holiday season.

Thirdly, and by no means least importantly, a Channel link would generate a great deal of employment not only in Kent but in many of the key sectors of British industry elsewhere which have been so grievously affected by the economic recession. I do not think we can any longer afford to stand idly by and watch our manufacturing base in this country continue to wither away. This massive project would by itself make a major contribution to the improvement of employment prospects in this country.

However, I should enter one qualification. It is the only point which I propose to put to the noble Lord who is winding up for the Government this evening. The Government have said—I do not propose to open a debate about whether what they have said is sensible—that this scheme has to be financed exclusively by private capital. We accept that as a decision. but one or two questions arise in relation to any form of Government guarantee which I suspect will be demanded by those responsible for whichever project is finally selected by the British and French Governments. For instance, those who are trying to raise private capital of the order of £5 billion will want some form of guarantee as to what will happen if either the British or the French Government have a change of heart at some time subsequent to the moment at which they have to devote substantial resources to this project. In such circumstances, what form of guarantee will the Government be prepared to give?

Secondly, this group will ask for some degree of comfort from the Government that there will not be unreasonable interventionist policy on the pricing. Again, these are matters of central importance to this project. If we want to proceed—I am quite sure that the Government do now want to proceed—some clear guarantee will have to be given to those who have the responsibility for raising these substantial sums of money.

Lastly, I think there is an even more powerful argument than any I have so far adduced in favour of proceeding with this project. It now appears that at last the issue of whether Britain should remain a member of the European Economic Community has been settled. At the next election there will be no political party claiming that, if elected, it will take Britain out. For that at least we should be thankful. I believe our country has paid a high price for the debilitating quarrel over the last 20 years about whether or not we should remain a member of the European Community. Politicians of different political persuasions have, with wearisome regularity, played, or attempted to play, the nationalistic card at general elections. Sometimes there have been suggestions that there should be yet more negotiations or re-negotiatons or re-re-negotiations about our terms of entry. At other times, there has been competitive mud-slinging directed at our Community partners, combined with shrill claims that one group of politicians rather than another can be relied upon rigorously to defend British national interests. This, I believe, has been deeply damaging to the position of Britain within the Community. It has also, I believe, made its contribution to weakening the capacity of the Community to respond sensibly to the serious economic problems caused by the recent economic recession.

The immense value of this project is not only that it can be of considerable economic benefit to this country but that it can also be seen as of the greatest value to France and our other partners in the Community. If it is vigorously supported by the Government, it could, I believe, symbolise in the most direct fashion our country's desire to make a fresh beginning in its relations with the rest of the Community. I hope that the Government will recognise this opportunity and give it their uninhibited support.

8.42 p.m.

Lord Molson

My Lords, I am sorry to strike a somewhat discordant note in a debate which has expressed general sympathy (with which I, certainly emotionally, sympathise) about a fixed link with the Continent of Europe. During the more than a century long debate about the Channel tunnel or bridge, the discussion has been concerned almost exclusively with strategic, geological, commercial and financial arguments for and against it. I want to put an argument against the fixed link which would not have been substantial a century ago, and indeed it would not have been raised. I believe the point to be so serious now as to be almost conclusive against the whole project. The reality is the threat of terrorism.

I need spend no time drawing attention to the widening practice of violence and terrorist activities and the increased destructive power of modern bombs. Knowledge of how to make or how to obtain nuclear bombs has not yet reached the terrorist world, but I fear that it will do so in time. While terrorism a century ago was confined to extreme nationalist movements such as the Fenians in Britain and the Macedonians in Turkey, there is now hardly a country in the world which has not been the scene of acts of terrorism. In many cases, those responsible—or sometimes others who were not responsible—have telephoned to the media claiming proudly to have been guilty of these crimes. In other cases, the motive is quite unknown, as in the recent case of a bomb which exploded in an Italian railway train travelling through a tunnel north of Florence. That is an example of what could be done in a Channel tunnel or on a bridge of any size or design.

There is now also an increasing willingness to make victims of innocent people in no way responsible for any alleged political grievance. Most, if not all, of the 19th century terrorists killed rulers or statesmen or other persons whom they alleged to be responsible for some kind of oppression or to be their political opponents. Now the terrorists strike quite indiscriminately—against the passengers in a train, as have referred to, in Italy; going to ski in the Alps; or the crowd waiting in Bologna Station to take a train. A Channel tunnel or bridge would be an obvious target for such people.

My Lords, nor is that all. We are now familiar with hoaxes. Exactly what is their purpose, nobody knows; but they occur. Perhaps some irresponsible people think it funny to telephone a threat to dislocate traffic and cause widespread alarm. They telephone that a bomb has been concealed in some vehicle, with a time fuse which will detonate it. No such warning could be disregarded. Consider the complete dislocation and delay while traffic through the Channel tunnel was held up by any hoax telephone call of that kind by a malicious or irresponsible individual. The profitability of any Channel tunnel must depend upon its giving a reliable service not liable to sudden interruptions. That cannot be guaranteed in these days of irresponsible terrorism.

There is no certain method of combating terrorism. The best way of reducing its efficacy is by dispersal in all its forms. In transport, dispersal can best be achieved by numerous alternative routes—aeroplanes, ships and trains. The certain way to facilitate terrorism and increase its effect would be to concentrate traffic on a single route and, above all, in a tunnel. Terrorism, unfortunately, is not a passing phenomenon nor a transient fashion. It is, I fear, endemic, widening its range and its scope. We shall provide it with a simple target if we build a fixed Channel crossing, and, my Lords, we shall do so at our peril.

8.48 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, I must thank the noble Earl for initiating this debate. He and I shared many voyages across the Channel together when we were members of the European Parliament and he knows well that I share his hope that a fixed link in the near future will be accomplished. I must also express my pleasure that my noble friend has expressed himself warmly in favour of a tunnel or some fixed link. Too rarely from this side of the House do we hear anything warm about any European project.

The noble Lord, Lord Molson has made a most important point. I am sure that all of us taking part in this debate have thought of the risk of a terrorist blowing up a Channel tunnel or a Channel bridge either for some political motive or just for the hell of it. The Channel tunnel is a subject that we have all been debating, I should think, since we were in the fourth form; and the people who were against the tunnel in those days used to argue that one night we might find somebody like Napoleon Bonaparte popping up at the Dover end of the tunnel with the Grande Armée behind him. The one schoolboy answer to that was that some English Horatius would guard the exit just as the Romans held the bridge over the Tiber. But that risk of an invasion via the Channel tunnel could be taken fairly lightly because it was never a real risk. But the terrorist threat of today, as the noble Lord, Lord Molson, has said, is a real one. However, I cannot think that it has been entirely overlooked by those people who are willing to put so much skill and so many millions of pounds into the building of a bridge or tunnel. Surely they must have considered the risk and decided that there could be effective safeguards against it.

I have been a supporter of a channel link all my life. I have always wanted Britain to be joined or rejoined to the Continent. This, I felt, would be a liberation from our insular fastness. It would not be simply a question of linking Dover with Calais but of Britain with the entire continent. I remember, the first time I crossed the Channel, thinking that there was no barrier to me on the road that led through Omsk and Tomsk to Vladivostok. That was of course a sentimental reason, and it was—and is—a very strong one. The other day I went to the Anglo-Saxon exhibition in the British Museum and learned of the frequent crossings of the Channel in the 10th century which enabled the Anglo-Saxon architects, craftsmen and artists to learn from and to influence their Christian brothers across the Channel.

We have always been a part of Europe, but a handicapped part—handicapped by high winds and low lying fogs. I want to make it as easy and as cheap to go to Brussels and Paris and beyond as it is to go to Manchester and Edinburgh: and so I support any scheme that will bring that about. But of course it is not only a matter of sentiment: it is also a matter of commerce. Our trade with Europe is great and is growing, and neither air freight nor the seaborne container—remarkably efficient though they are—are anything like so efficient as a direct link, whether it be a tunnel under the sea or a bridge over the sea.

To come back to sentiment, I recall that ten or a dozen years ago a party from this House went, as did my noble friend, to explore the mile or so of tunnel built on this side of the Channel, and then we flew over to France to see their end of the tunnel. Then we sat down over luncheon with the English and French engineers and we toasted the day when they would meet and shake hands in the tunnel, as they broke the last barrier between England and France.

But it was not to be. For Mr. Crosland—and I was very grateful for the explanation that we have had tonight from my noble friend—it was not simply "a touch of the Lawsons", a premature "touch of the Nigels" as it were: there were other reasons. I remember that at the time there was a lot of opposition among Members in the north of England against all that money being spent in the south. There was objection from all the MPs in the ports in the south of England and on the east coast. Then there were the environmentalists in the south of England, who feared that the south would be made ugly and industrial.

But today the project is alive again and I fervently hope that one of the three schemes will win approval. Perhaps the Eurobridge project, with its accompanying tunnel, will be built, and built in my lifetime, and I shall be able to drive or be driven over the suspension bridge through the oblate, ellipsoid tube and past the six towers that will soar, each of them over 250 feet high—they will be half as high as Blackpool Tower—and be able to travel to the Continent.

8.54 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords. I cannot quite agree with the noble Lord who has just sat down. Of course he is entitled to his own opinion, but he said that he would have liked Britain to have been joined to Europe for hundreds and hundreds of years: that is what he said in so many words. But I am quite sure that our insularity, though now out of date, gave us in those centuries our character and our determination to form the greatest empire in the world.

Those days are over now and as regards trade we had no need then to have a fixed link. In any case, that would have been quite impossible because we did not have the know-how. Today it is quite different. We have the know-how; we are an offshore island and we do not want to be an offshore island any longer. That is the reason for my great interest in the fixed link.

I must declare an interest here—I think I am the only speaker so far who has declared an interest. Over the past four or five years I have been associated with the Eurobridge Group studies, and we have in that period done an immense amount of research on a bridge, from every angle. I do not wish to decry a tunnel. All I would say is that a tunnel would be quite incapable of handling the load of traffic that we now have in Europe and the EEC. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Bessborough, that 80 per cent. of all traffic on the Continent goes by road. If we had a twin tunnel, I understand that such a tunnel would not be able to handle more than one-fifth of that traffic.

There is also another point concerning a tunnel, which is that you have to load and offload, and therefore you would not get such a fast and free flow of traffic as with a bridge. I am not decrying a tunnel, but I am saying that the two should be complementary. I personally think that the bridge is by far the most important because, knowing the history of the railways over the past few years, they never make a profit and therefore I doubt whether the tunnel under the Channel would make a profit for British Rail. I imagine that the structuring of the tolls on the bridge would have to cover any loss made by the rail tunnel, but in this Channel fixed link there will obviously have to be a vast consortium, and the tunnel and the bridge presumably would come under more or less the same control.

I have taken down quite a few notes from what noble Lords have said, although I do not want to detain the House for long. From the point of view of trade, I am also interested in the question of tourists. We now have a vast number of tourists coming to this country but the bridge would bring an even greater number. The majority of tourists come either by bus or in their own cars. Obviously cars or buses cannot drive through a tunnel, but they can drive through a tube which is above the sea because ventilation is extremely easy in a tube above the sea. One could not have people driving vehicles through a tunnel under the sea because they would all be poisoned, for such a tunnel would be impossible to ventilate. This would not be the case with a train because the train's coaches could presumably have their own ventilation and their own oxygen supply.

My noble friend Lord Bessborough gave a short resumé of the type of bridge envisaged. I do not want to repeat what he said. I have sitting beside me an extremely distinguished civil engineer, my noble friend Lord Layton, who will presumably go deeply into that aspect. I do not intend to venture into places where angels fear to tread—I have done that perhaps once or twice in my life but I do not embark on that any more.

My noble friend Lord Molson brought up the question of terrorism. This can apply to anything. One cannot hold up all progress because of terrorism. One has to go ahead. There are obviously risks; but around the towers one could use this wonderful new material called Parafil, which is made by ICI-Dupont. One could have extremely strong nets made of that material, which would presumably stop any underwater sabotage. One would have to have some surface protection for the bridge which presumably would be provided by the Navies of both France and Britain.

I am a firm supporter of the bridge. We have never asked the Government for any money; we do not want Government money. Before the bridge can be started we shall have to have another two years of various deliberations by experts, but we have already done a great amount of that. Some people are very scared about the question of navigation. We have gone into that thoroughly, and of course the towers will act as extremely up-to-date lighthouses. They will have every modern form of electronic warning devices for ships. I think that the bridge will help navigation in the Channel. I know a little about navigation because at one time I took a course in that as a yachtsman.

I am quite sure that the bridge will not mar the seascape and landscape but will, with the modem technology we now have, be a thing of beauty. One should not compare the Forth Bridge—which was built in 1880 and was a marvellous achievement of that age but completely mars the landscape—with a Channel bridge, which I am perfectly sure will one day come to be built, because that would be like comparing a dinosaur with something elegant like a gazelle.

I support the Eurobridge to a great extent, but I do not decry the tunnel as something complementary to it. Here the question of employment is extremely important. I think that this point has already been mentioned; however, I should like to say that the attraction of employment by private capital is that it does not increase inflation, but employment by public expenditure does so. The employment figure would be about 80,000. The people—some of whom would be bound to be French—would be employed for a considerable number of years. One would also have all the ancillaries. I do not know how much employment that will amount to, but it will certainly amount to a lot. That must be borne in mind.

I do not know what my noble friend on the Front Bench will say, but I hope that it will be encouraging. My noble friend Lord Bessborough spoke on how far the Government have progressed with the French side. I have said enough, but I should like to see this bridge come into existence. I do not expect that I shall see it. I suppose that the preliminary work will take two years and that it will take another five or six years to build the bridge. I should like to see this bridge with the flags of all the EEC nations fluttering on it. It will be a great achievement, rather like the Suez Canal. I am absolutely sure that this project is something that will come to pass.

9.8 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, virtually all noble Lords who have spoken in this important debate, so effectively initiated by the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, have judged that the time is right for a fixed link to be constructed across the Channel. There is no doubt that the need is there. There is no doubt that the technical capability is there. There is no doubt that the resources to construct such a fixed link could be made available, both in human and material terms.

What has so far inhibited progress has been the uncertain attitude of government. It now appears that both the British and French governments have concluded in principle that such a link would be desirable. I personally had the opportunity recently, at a meeting of the Franco-British Council in Avignon, of hearing both Prime Ministers speak to that effect. What is now necessary is to know the basis on which the two governments consider that work should proceed. It is satisfactory to know that the joint working party has got down to its task, and we have been assured that they will be reporting by the end of February.

However, I should like to draw attention to and underline some of the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Limerick, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I feel that, if the Government are adamant, as the press notice of 10th January makes clear, that they will not support this project from public funds or provide any guarantee of a commercial nature for the construction of this link, then the other terms of their undertakings should be very clearly stated.

These conditions must surely be such as to enable projects validly to be put forward and the political assurances would have to be extremely precise in view of past experience. There is also a form of words in the press notice which does disturb me slightly. It is that, apparently, the guidelines are to include any constraints affecting commercial exploitation. I am not quite sure what those words mean and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, can enlighten us. But, if the Government are on the one hand not to provide any financial commitment, and on the other hand are to impose certain constraints on commercial operation, it is difficult to see how this project can get off the ground. So it is very important that these points are fully clarified in the document that will finally be published.

As to the sort of scheme that should be undertaken, there has been much discussion and noble Lords have expressed their various preferences. My own opinion is that three very imaginative schemes have been put forward and a great deal of valuable work has already been done. We are now presented effectively with a project for the twin rail tunnel, the Euro-bridge, and the Euro-route. So far as I am concerned, like other noble Lords who have participated in this debate, I have spent some time briefing myself. I have met with representatives of the tunnel group and have received briefs from those who have put forward ideas on the Euro-bridge and the Euro-route.

I personally veer towards the tunnel concept because a great deal of work has already been done on that. I believe it is a project which can probably be completed sooner than the others, with less capital expenditure. If a road link were later to be required, that could be constructed subsequently. It is indeed noticeable that in the case of both the Euro-bridge and the Euro-route schemes, they envisage the accompaniment of a rail tunnel. That seems to be the common element among these three schemes.

The noble Lord, Lord Molson, with his customary eloquence, has drawn our attention to the risk of terrorism. Indeed, that is a very serious point. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, commented, surely those who have prepared these projects have taken that aspect fully into account. I do not believe that the ever-present and possibly growing risk of terrorism in the world should put us off going ahead with important and major projects of this sort. We must defeat terrorism and one way is to say that we are going ahead with technological development in spite of all the risks that the terrorists would like to put in our way.

Therefore, I conclude by saying that I think this has been a memorable and timely debate. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, in replying, will make it clear to us that there is no longer any ambivalance on the part of the Government as to the principle of a link and that, in drawing up the criteria, the two governments will ensure that they are of such a nature that valid proposals can be put forward.

9.15 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I feel rather guilty, having heard what my noble friend Lord Ezra said about noble Lords doing their homework; and certainly hearing that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, had studied the papers, and so on. I have to admit that the only briefing I have had is one I received from British Rail which was sent to me because I am an ex-employee. My experience over a period of years is on Monday mornings, after the general manager's conference at Waterloo, spending hours discussing the Channel tunnel and the rail links between Waterloo and the entrance to the tunnel. For a long time it was very real to me and I was sure it was going ahead. I would even say that it was. It was, therefore, a shock when I found out that I did not know what I was talking about—that is not unusual!

I should like to take up one or two aspects. The noble Lord, Lord Molson, referred to terrorism and noble Lords have rightly said that we cannot give in to terrorism. My own view is that if terrorists want to blow up things they can blow up any number of tunnels in this country. They could blow up the Mont Blanc tunnel. It has not stopped us in the past. We cannot give in to terrorism, ever.

What worries me far more, and is not connected with terrorism, is that when we have the bridge or the tunnel there will no longer be any cross-Channel ferries. During the recent exercise "Lionheart"—which I should have attended but could not as I was ill—we relied on the cross-Channel ferries to transport troops, armour and supplies. If we do not have these cross-Channel ferries because they will no longer be required, how in times of emergency are we to get these items across? I suppose we could take over the bridge or the tunnel but commercially that does not sound a very good idea. That would worry me, unless we put the ferries in mothballs in case they are needed.

I am against the bridge-only concept. One noble Lord said that to build such a bridge we would be at the very extremities of our technical knowledge. I think that there are too many problems. We know that we can build a tunnel. To me the obvious answer is to have a train going right through from one end to the other carrying freight, and alongside it another which British Rail call a road-vehicle shuttle. The vehicles would be put on the shuttle and taken to a large island in the middle of the Channel. The island would have a hotel and restaurant where people could also walk around and obtain fresh air. There could also be a duty free bonanza. The place would be so huge that even if it was hit by a super-tanker it would not matter. One can imagine that driving 23 miles in a straight line in a tunnel or on a bridge one would soon get dizzy with all the posts going by and many accidents could occur. There must be a break, and if so, have one or even two islands. Those who want a bridge could have two islands. The island on the French side could have a hotel serving pommes frites and on the English island could be a hotel serving fish and chips. Everyone would then be happy.

I forget whether I said this, but if one thinks about it, there has been talk about a Channel tunnel or something like it since the end of the Napoleonic wars. That is so long ago that even the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, probably was not born then. I really think that we should get on and do something.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Layton

My Lords, like my colleague, I, too, must declare an interest, as I have been closely concerned with the Eurobridge Study Group. It is a very active group and has included a wide range of consultants in every aspect of a Channel link. It has dealt closely with and examined thoroughly all the problems of traffic both across and up and down the Channel. I believe that it has worked very much more than most other projects so far on the problems of engineering, navigation, ecology, surveying, insurance and many other technnical factors. It has also dealt with those companies which have produced and are producing these new and, some people feel, very advanced materials and which have experience in their construction.

I think that I should also declare that, as chairman at one time of a well-known international bridge and tunnel building company, I speak with a certain amount of expertise. I must say that I am very grateful indeed to the Government for advancing, as they are today, and pushing forward with efforts to get a Channel link begun and on the road—and rail, perhaps. I feel that it is essential that a decision should be made as early as possible. I hope that this debate will help the Government to reach that decision.

As I said, I have been closely concerned with the Eurobridge proposals. As your Lordships will see, the Eurobridge Study Group was set up to study all the problems involved. I ought perhaps to give a slightly better picture of the scheme that we are talking about, but before I do that I must say that we have examined closely all the other schemes as far as we have been able to and discussed among ourselves the possibilities of their being effectively advanced. I still feel that the answer to the double rail tunnel is given pretty well in both the report of the Anglo-French working group of 1982 and the bankers' report two years later in which it was said quite categorically that the proposal could not really be carried out without some Government guarantees, either on the repayment of loans or on the amount of traffic, and therefore, if necessary, a subsidy.

We worked on the suggested idea of the bridge, which I support, and it comes out very happily. The bridge is so profitable by all calculations that we could well afford to build the single rail tunnel, even if it only broke even. It is this project that we put forward. We can meet the requirements of the railway people by having a single tunnel, as was originally suggested by British Rail and the French railways. It is our feeling that the best way to get a rail tunnel is for us to build the bridge.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said, the Euro Route proposal was put forward in 1962. As a concept it is very interesting but it has enormous technical disadvantages with which I shall not bother your Lordships tonight but which I think will push it out. As was shown in the Economist, it is difficult to see how the project can be made to pay well enough to be commercially viable on private capital. I am interested, too, that they have radically changed their ideas (I think it was mentioned by one speaker) on the problem of a rail tunnel of sunken tubes, which was part of the Chesapeake Bay project. That has now changed, and they are going to a bored tunnel. So all the tunnels for rail are now of the bored variety.

I have been asked on numerous occasions about the viability of the materials of which we would make such a bridge, and the degree to which they have been tested. I think it is only fair to say that the cable material which we are proposing has been in use for over 20 years under very stringent conditions. It is now used as guy ropes for most television masts. It has been used for deep sea moorings, and it has been used to deal with all kinds of problems in the North Sea. It has not been used in a suspension bridge because it only really comes into its own as a great advantage in the case of a suspension bridge when you have the longer spans. It makes the longer spans feasible and practical, because it weighs one-sixth of the weight of the equivalent steel. Furthermore, with the type of cable structure that we use it is possible to put up the cable much faster than one can the old-fashioned steel cable. I speak as a steel man who has at one time helped build the cables for some of the steel suspension bridges. This material also has great advantages from the point of view of maintenance.

Another speaker made the point about it being easier to maintain a tunnel once you have dug the hole than possibly to maintain bridges. I think perhaps Annexe B of the Blue Book, which reported so unfavourably on bridges, was very much influenced by the troubles we have been having with bridges. The Severn Bridge has an appalling picture to paint in terms of suspension bridges. There are several others where the maintenance has perhaps become lax and where corrosion has had a very serious effect.

The materials we are talking about are largely corrosion-free. The cables, in particular, are corrosion-free. They have been used in marine applications, and there is no corrosion. They are neutral to all the types of gases, liquids, etc., with which they may come into contact. So we have here a very important factor. I refer not only to the cables but also to the structure of the tube in which the traffic will travel. This is also made of a material which is very largely corrosion-resistant, and therefore free of maintenance problems.

One of the great features of the technique that we are now proposing to use is that the maintenance cost of the whole structure will be very low throughout its life. We are also dealing with a new material for the deck on which the traffic runs. This material has been used in a very dense traffic area at Hangar Lane for the last 15 years, and has shown its durability, wearability and effectiveness. What is equally important is that the weight of these materials is only a fraction of the normal road material weight. This also helps us in our building of these long-span bridges.

It is getting late, my Lords. I could go on in detail about the way in which the bridge is to be built and structured, but I think from what I have said your Lordships will see that as far as the materials are concerned we should be using modern, advanced materials—materials which have already been used in many applications but not specifically in this one. We are using these materials to their best advantage and within known technology.

I come therefore to the other problems that face such a bridge. We, at an early stage, went to all the authorities on navigation because we realised the problem faced by navigation in the Channel. Obviously, as some speakers have mentioned, there will be a cutting down of the ferries crossing the Channel. The short-link ferries will, I think, disappear. I believe that that is inevitable. I am sure, however, that there will remain quite a lot of the longer route ferries such as Southampton to Cherbourg, Harwich to The Hague and places like that. I do not think therefore, that there will be a total disappearance of ferry traffic. Some people will take the ferries just for the pleasure of a sea trip. What is, however, very clear is that, as we are putting in both a bridge and a rail tunnel, there will be at least two short route crossings of the Channel. So the competitive problem, the availability problem, should be dealt with.

So far as navigation is concerned, we had talks with Trinity House, with the shipping section of the Department of Transport and with various other maritime authorities to find out the best answers that could be given. We should be clear that 50 per cent. or more of all traffic travels not down the centre of the Channel but along the coastal fringes, which means that it is as essential to keep those clear as it is to keep the centre clear. After full examination, the navigation authorities have come up with the comment really that they are very content with our proposals for 5,000 metre spans. We are, in fact, in discussion with them on the exact location of the six towers that will stand in the Channel in order to mark most precisely the deep channels and the shallows. As a result, we can achieve, I believe, a far better guide for ships travelling up and down the Channel as to exactly where they should be. Far from representing a danger, the bridge will, in fact, improve navigation in the Channel.

Mention has been made of protection. We also have designs to provide adequate gear to be able to stop a major tanker from hitting the bridge at any point. This will be done without damage to the tanker. We have gone into the matter in great detail.

Several questions have been raised in relation to the various schemes. It is important to recognise that our scheme is, we believe, very financially viable. I agree with several speakers who have mentioned the terms of reference of the group that it is very important to clarify the conditions under which we are to raise the cash. It is important because we shall not get adequate support if there is an unknown risk of government interference in the commercial activity of the company that builds the bridge or of their stopping the operation when it is partially carried out. So those sort of guarantees we do need. If they are there, there is no doubt whatever, in respect of the bridge and rail tunnel that Eurobridge has put forward, that the entire capital could be repaid after about seven years or, at the most, nine years. Even that, I believe, is a little on the conservative side from experience gained in various major road development projects on the Continent and also on bridges such as that over the Bosphorus, where the future long-term development of traffic expected over quite a considerable period turned up after the second year. These are the sort of figures that we have.

With the M20 and the M23 bringing down 10 or 12 lanes of traffic to the Kent area, we believe that, if those are really justified—and I believe they are—then it is quite wrong to put that traffic onto a rail ferry or to put it onto a four-lane highway. We are therefore putting 12 lanes—that is, four lanes on the two main decks and two lanes on each on the two lesser decks—within the elipse that we are putting round the whole bridge. We believe that this is the right way to do it, and of course it gives us great flexibility. It gives us tremendous defence against serious accidents on the road, because we can divert traffic onto different decks, and it is a great help in meeting the peak loads.

I have already dealt with the maintenance figure, but it is of considerable interest. It produces an important effect on the cost of running the whole operation. Another point made by one speaker—I think it was the noble Lord. Lord Gladwyn—was that there was a problem if one of the sectors of the bridge was damaged. Our design is such that should sabotage wreck one span of the bridge the remaining spans will remain intact and in place. That is part of the back-up that we have done. Somebody else mentioned the height of the towers. I would point out that they are roughly the height of the Eiffel Tower; perhaps a little higher. It gives you the scale of the bridge in terms of looks as well as in terms of the engineering required. I would add that, in dealing with towers of that nature, a most important factor is that we have the experience of putting very large structures into the North Sea in regard to the finding of oil and bringing it to the surface.

There are many other technical points that I could mention, and there are at least two more that I should like to deal with. One is the matter of employment, and particularly the employment problem at Dover. It has been pointed out that we shall probably create jobs for 65,000 to 70,000 with the building of the bridge. However, further studies show that the effect of bringing such a flow of traffic down into that area of the country and also through the Pas de Calais will create enormous servicing areas, back-up industries and the like which will probably double or treble that number of permanent jobs in the areas; so I believe that it will be a great adjunct to employment in the South of England as well as in the Pas de Calais.

I still think that the right answer is. "Yes, give us the bridge and we will build the tunnel". I should like to say that I hope the Government are going to see their way to push ahead very strongly and very firmly and to insist that, in studying the three projects, they ask the real technical questions necessary to ensure they get the right answer.

9.39 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Bessborough for initiating this most interesting debate this evening. As he has said, he is half English and half French, so he has a unique interest in this matter, having, so to speak. a foot on both sides of the Channel. I have listened with enormous interest to the wide range of comment and opinion expressed this evening. There is also considerable public interest in the question of a cross-Channel link. I am sure that the many and varied points of view we have heard today reflect something of that wider interest throughout the country. With the exception of my noble friend Lord Molson, all those who have spoken have been in favour of some kind of link.

My noble friend Lord Bessborough has asked Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made in discussions with the French Government regarding the construction of a Channel link. The question of a link has been raised at two recent meetings with members of the French Government. On 14th November, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport met the French Minister of Town Planning, Housing and Transport and the French State Secretary for Transport. And at the end of November my right honourable friend the Prime Minister discussed the matter with the French President at the Anglo-French summit meeting.

At the first of those meetings my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport and the two French Ministers discussed the basis on which their two Governments could agree to facilitate the construction of a fixed link. The crucial question was finance. Her Majesty's Government have consistently made it clear that any scheme for a Channel link would have to be privately financed, with no support from public funds or guarantees from Government against technical or commercial risks. This principle was endorsed by both sides at the meeting on 14th November, and it was agreed that, if a scheme acceptable to the two Governments can be financed on this basis, then the two Governments will play their part in making a project possible, by negotiating a treaty and promoting the necessary national legislation. At the Anglo-French summit, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the French President welcomed and endorsed these conclusions.

In the course of these discussions, the two Governments have stated unequivocally their willingness to give a fair wind to an acceptable Channel link scheme which can be privately developed and privately financed. Both Governments recognise that some form of political undertaking will be necessary to protect promoters against the possibility that action or inaction by either or both Governments might cause the project to be aborted. This was a point which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and, I think, my noble friend Lord Layton touched upon. But the terms of the political guarantee will need careful definition. There is certainly no question of any other form of Government guarantee being given, for example, to protect a scheme against normal commercial risk, or to ensure completion of a scheme which ran into technical or financial

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I should like to ask a question as regards the guarantees because I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that this is a matter of central importance. He has dealt with one aspect of the matter which I put to him, but perhaps I may remind him of the second: that is, are the Government prepared to give any type of undertaking to the promoters of whichever project they finally select, that there will not be unduly interventionist policies so far as pricing is concerned? This is a matter of great importance.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am coming to that in due course. Any scheme accepted will have to be a fully private sector enterprise, and before we accept it we shall need to be convinced that it is financially robust and commercially sound.

The initiatives must come from the market. The opportunities for British industry, in partnership with French firms, are considerable. A number of private sector consortia are already putting a great deal of effort into developing possible schemes. We have heard this evening of the proposals for a twin rail tunnel with a roll-on roll-off vehicle shuttle. There are the EuroBridge proposals for a seven-span suspension bridge, of which my noble friend Lord Layton has spoken so enthusiastically. And there are the EuroRoute proposals for a combined scheme with bridges across the inshore zones and an immersed tube beneath the central shipping lanes. All these undoubtedly offer exciting possibilities for innovative design and the creative use of new materials. It is now up to prospective promoting groups, including financial institutions and potential owner/operators, as well as design and construction companies, to convince the two Governments that their schemes are both technically feasible and financially sound.

Of course, before these promoting groups can submit firm proposals, including designs, financing plans and operating arrangements, there is a certain amount of guidance they will require from the two Governments.

I have already mentioned the need to define precisely what political undertakings the two governments will give. Promoters will also need a clear indication of the financial and commercial framework within which a link would be constructed and operated. I believe that that is the point which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was making, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. This, of course, will mean sorting out with the French Government such matters as the taxation regime and the application of competition law. In addition, promoters will need guidance on the governments' requirements on safety standards, on arrangements for frontier controls, and on the protection of the environment. Obviously it will be essential to ensure there is adequate opportunity for the public and any organisations with an interest to contribute their views on whatever proposals are put forward. It is only fair to let promoters know, in general terms at least, what consultation and planning procedures are envisaged.

For schemes other than bored tunnels—which do not involve structures in the Channel—there are also maritime and marine questions. The governments will want to spell out the safeguards they would require to ensure the safety of shipping and minimum disturbance to the marine environment. All of these are important questions, for which the Government have a clear responsibility. And obviously, prospective promoters will want to know where they stand on these matters, and what the governments require of them. That is why, after their meeting on 14th November, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport and the French Transport Ministers announced the setting up of an official working group, with representatives from both administrations to prepare guidance on these various aspects for prospective promoters.

At the Anglo/French Summit meeting, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the French President indicated that the group should complete its work within three months, that is, by the end of February. Much preparatory work has already been done and at its meeting on 10th January the group agreed the scope of the guidance to be given and made arrangements for the further joint studies necessary to define its content.

Once this guidance is available, it will be up to interested private sector groups to respond to the challenge and opportunity a fixed Channel link scheme offers. In the light of the guidance given, it is up to prospective promoting groups to develop and submit firm proposals jointly to the two governments. Whether a Channel link scheme goes ahead will depend on the ability of these groups to come forward with robust and convincing proposals to demonstrate that they have the capacity and resources to complete their scheme, and that they can meet the two governments' safety and other requirements.

It is impossible to speculate what the final outcome will be. It would be improper for the Government to back any one scheme against the others at this stage, and indeed it would be foolish to do so before the firms have submitted their proposals in response to the governments' guidelines. A number of noble Lords have stressed the apparent advantages of drive-through schemes, in which vehicles can be driven directly across the link without the need to use a rail shuttle service. Clearly such schemes may be an attractive proposition to many individual car drivers and road hauliers. But it is up to the promoters of these more costly drive-through schemes to demonstrate that they can attract adequate financial backing for their proposals and that the presence of bridge piers or structures in the Channel will not endanger shipping or the marine or coastal environment.

On the other hand, some noble Lords have argued that a tunnel scheme, even though it would depend on a rail shuttle to ferry vehicles across, would be simpler and safer to build, using well tried and proven technology, and avoiding any danger of interference with shipping and minimising damage to the environment. In due course each promoting group will no doubt put forward the merits and advantages of its own scheme. But neither we nor the French Government have imposed any preconditions on the form or type of link. At this stage, all options remain open.

My noble friend Lord Bessborough asked about contacts with other member states of the European Community and with the European Commission. The Government consider it essential at this stage to concentrate on discussions between the two governments directly involved, that is ourselves and the French Government. Unless and until there is an agreement in principle between our two governments on which scheme, if any, we are ready to facilitate, there is little we can usefully discuss with our other Community partners. Reflecting a very positive interest shown by the European Parliament, the Commission has in the past undertaken studies of the Community interest in the construction of a fixed link across the Channel. Most recently they commissioned from the group of French and British banks which carried out a study, published last May, of the financing of a fixed link, a supplement to their report dealing with possible Community involvement.

In response to the invitation from the council, the Commission have just put forward proposals on the broad outlines of a policy on development of Community infrastructure. I have not yet seen these proposals, and as far as I know they have not yet been translated from the French. It is in this context that a possible Community role in relation to a fixed Channel link would have to be examined. It is too early for me to say anything on this tonight, but the relevant documents will be submitted to your Lordships' Committee for consideration.

The noble Lords, Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Layton, particularly mentioned the employment prospects of this project. There can be no doubt that a major project on this scale would create a large number of jobs during construction. The net effect, once the link was in operation, would depend both on its nature and on the rate of traffic growth. I do not wish to comment now on any figures mentioned by the promoters of the various schemes. This is something that the Government will look at very closely, but we must see their proposals first.

My noble friend Lord Molson mentioned terrorism. I assure him that the risks of sabotage are well in the minds of both Governments. They will not be overlooked by the Anglo-French study group in advising Ministers. I must agree with the words of Lord Ezra, particularly, that we should not give in to terrorism, but should try to go ahead with schemes like this.

The idea of a cross-Channel link has been under discussion now for close on a couple of centuries. Many ingenious plans have been devised, some of them fanciful, some of them realistic. My noble friend Lord Bessborough has already referred to the first road tunnel proposal, made in 1802.That tunnel, for horse-drawn carriages, would have been lit by oil lamps and needed an artificial island half-way across so that the horses could be changed. Perhaps this would have been somewhat similar to the island which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. mentioned. Technology and transport have both come a long way since then.

Opposition in the 19th century was mainly on military grounds. In 1882, the South Eastern Railway Company had already constructed the first 2,000 yards of a Channel tunnel near Dover when the government of the day put a stop to the work for fear that a tunnel would encourage the French to invade. There has been a long history of doubt and hesitation. As recently as 10 years ago, another tunnel scheme, which the noble Lord. Lord Carmichael, described very well, was started and abandoned. Next time it must be a case of "I've started, so I'll finish".

The Government have made their position clear: if the private sector can come up with a scheme acceptable to the French Government and ourselves, and robust enough to ensure that it is completed, we shall play our part in making that project possible. We must take one step at a time. When we have received and assessed all the promoters' proposals, we shall have a clearer idea of what is feasible and what is financeable. Only then, in close consultation with the French Government, can we come to a final decision.