You may say I’m a dreamer, in the words of the poet Lennon, but I’m not the only one. It was back in the 1980s that EuroRoute proposed a magnificent scheme to the British and French governments, backed by such names as Barclays and Trafalgar House. The EuroRoute involved both a road and a rail link, and it strikes me as tragic that we didn’t choose it
Time to reconquer France
Even as I write these words, I can hear the anguish in the voice of my constituent. Every morning she gets up and looks at the mist rising from the meadows of Oxfordshire; and every morning she dreads the bulldozers biting through the hedges and the habitats, and in her mind’s eye she sees the rabbit-hutch housing filling the fields, and in her agony she turns to me and wonders.
Of course she wants homes for British families, she says; but is there no where else they can go? And as house prices rise and the traffic gets ever slower, and as the clamour mounts for water and sewerage and space and gardens, and as ever more young couples go miserably to their MPs to say they cannot afford to get on the housing ladder, it is time for real bravery and radicalism.
We politicians must either betray the green belt, or look harder at all the alternatives, no matter how barmy they may at first appear. It was not long ago that my brilliant friend and colleague John Redwood proposed that we should create a new city of 150,000 by reclaiming land from the sea. He was going to turn the Essex coast into a kind of Venetian archipelago, with Simon Heffer filling the dusk of the Isola di Canvey with his gondolier-style song.
While I in no way wish to detract from the beauty of the coming Redwood polderland, I want to lead you to a yet more gorgeous landscape, a place where there are already hundreds of thousands of lovely homes – and going for a quarter of the English price.
The place I am thinking of has sensational food, and sunshine and clean hospitals and trains that can travel at 357 mph and waiters with a far better command of English than you can find in London. Yes, my friends, I am taking us to France, and the lands that used to be English, and that could be English once more – or more English than they are now.
In his Histoire d’Angleterre, André Maurois points out that the Seine and the Thames used both to be tributaries of the same great primaeval river, and that it was only in the past 8,000 years – a twinkling – that the melting glaciers turned that river into the Channel. Well, I say it is time we forded that river again; it is time for another fixed link across our national moat. Because, in spite of our existing rail link, the Channel is serving to pen in the English, and to push up our house prices, and to prevent us from spilling naturally back into Artois and Normandy and Aquitaine and all the other bits of France that we held, one way or another, until we lost Calais in 1558.
In one sense, the economic arguments are overwhelming. The population density in southern England is about four times greater than much of northern France; and the central point is that our house prices, by comparison with those in France, are therefore demented. We have a position in which millions of desperate consumers are separated from the commodities they need by a paltry stretch of water, and in their desperation they are preparing to carve into what is left of the southern English countryside.
It is no use just urging folk to go and live in the north of England, and in any event houses in the north of England are still more expensive than those in France. This is a logistics problem, a transport problem, and it demands vision. We must accept, first, that the existing fixed link – the Eurostar and Eurotunnel system – is not doing the job its creators imagined. The trains are pricey, they break down, and even if you load your car on at Folkestone and take it off at Calais, you still have a half an hour check-in, or an hour if you have pets.
What you do not have is that vital psychological sense of connexion, a road link between Britain and France as simple as the M4 from London to Slough. You might not commute, but you would have the constant sense of potential. Imagine the bliss, the freedom, of getting into your car (either a hybrid, let us say, or one of the coming race of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles) and flooring it across the Channel in half an hour.
You may say I’m a dreamer, in the words of the poet Lennon, but I’m not the only one. It was back in the 1980s that EuroRoute proposed a magnificent scheme to the British and French governments, backed by such names as Barclays and Trafalgar House. The EuroRoute involved both a road and a rail link, and it strikes me as tragic that we didn’t choose it. Dial it up now, and you will see how the motorist goes out to sea on a big bridge, though no bigger than many already in existence. You then arrive at an island seven miles out, like a gigantic Fisher-Price kiddy kar park, and you descend a short spiral ramp to the sea-bed.
You then proceed through the tunnel laid on the sea bed, like a vast double-barrelled shotgun buried in a trench. After about the length of the St Gotthard Pass, you spiral out through another Fisher-Price island, complete with casinos and hotels, on to another bridge and boom – you’re in France.
OK, it sounds nutty, put like that, but so did the motor car in the 1890s. You will point out that existing tunnel is already a financial black hole, and you will raise the spectre of terrorists and other undesirables coming the wrong way. But I don’t think any of these objections ultimately fatal, and the big question is this. Are we really going to spend the next century with one fixed link, with the same measly tunnels and the same measly train set? Is that the best humanity can do in the face of 22 miles of shallow water?
Look at the huge psychological impact of the 1999 Oresund bridge that links Denmark and Sweden, sundered by the same melting glaciers. We could repopulate northern France. We would alleviate the hideous pressure on the green belt, and we could physically reunite the English with their former territories. To all politicians in search of a legacy, this is the big one, and you read it here first.