Channel ports see gloom at end of the tunnel: Gail Counsell looks at the competition for visitors, jobs and investment on both sides of the water

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The Independent Online
THOSE who live along the edges of the Channel used to gaze across its grey and choppy waters looking for signs of an invasion. These days they are keeping their fingers crossed that one appears.

In the new borderless European Community the location of jobs is a hot issue. Thanks to the Channel tunnel, few areas compete as directly for investment as the relatively depressed regions that face each other across La Manche.

The first trains are not due to emerge from the tunnel mouths near Folkestone and Calais until December at the earliest, but they have already made their impact felt.

At the begining of the year Boulogne was devastated by P&O's decision to cut its ferry services to the French port and concentrate its ships on the Dover-Calais route in order to compete with the tunnel. The move means Hoverspeed's four-times-daily SeaCat to Folkestone is now Boulogne's only passenger link with England.

It is a slender thread, given that about a quarter of Boulogne's trade depends on cross-Channel traffic. The town, where the port indirectly accounts for up to half the jobs, already has nearly 16 per cent unemployment.

Boulogne has arranged a pounds 250,000 television advertising campaign in the UK to promote a series of special SeaCat offers, and the Chamber of Commerce is trying to find a new ferry company to replace the P&O service. It has also improved its fishing port facilities, hoping to boost its substantial fish processing role.

The issue is causing much bitterness in the town. Many tradespeople are angry at what they see as a lack of response and worry about how much worse things might get once the tunnel opens. They think the Chamber of Commerce should run a free shuttle bus service between Calais and Boulogne to encourage tourists to make the 20-minute journey. But the chamber says demand from tourists for a shuttle is unproven, and the cost would be high.

Gaining from P&O's decision, of course, will be Boulogne's neighbour and competitor, Calais. Business has progressively been drifting from Boulogne to Calais for more than a decade. In 1983 Calais handled twice as many passengers as Boulogne. This year, while Boulogne may handle as few as a million, Calais can expect at least 14 million. The tunnel has accelerated the process dramatically, and with potentially devastating effect.

But in Calais they are also apprehensive about what the opening of the tunnel will mean. Gerard Barron, spokesman for the town's Chamber of Commerce, said: 'In 10 years' time the same thing could happen to Calais as to Boulogne. But for the moment we are all right.'

The fear of many business people in Calais is that day-trippers will no longer bother to come to shop in the town once the tunnel terminal is open. Instead passengers in search of cheap wine and beer will pour off the trains and straight into 'La Cite de l'Europe', the giant retail complex due to open in March 1995 that is being developed around the terminal by Eurotunnel and Arc Union, its French partner.

They are worried not only about the day-trippers, who will be targeted by Eurotunnel, but also about the important tourists and commercial traffic. The terminal, just outside the town, has been linked into a network of motorways, built to connect it with the rest of Europe, but which bypass Calais.

With up to a third of all economic activity in Calais related to cross-Channel trade, and as many as 6,000 jobs depending on the port, it is hardly surprising the town is apprehensive.

About 13.5 million ferry and Hovercraft passengers used Calais last year, the vast bulk coming by coach or car. About 40 per cent were day-trippers, pouring off the ferries and into the restaurants and shops.

The ferries believe they will keep the lion's share of freight crossing the Channel. But the battle over passengers looks likely to be vicious. Eurotunnel's estimate is that the present 15.5 million Channel passengers will swell to 18.5 million by 1995, but that of these the bulk, 13.5 million, will use the tunnel.

Other voices, however, argue that the tunnel may be a great source of revival. The hope is that it, the high-speed rail links, the improved motorway network and the cheap land will attract investment. At least, they point out, the tunnel has put them on the map.

But if that is Calais' hope, across the water it is also the source of deep concern.

'We are already losing jobs to northern France,' said Martin Hemingway, who runs East Kent Initiative, a public and private sector project to revitalise the East Kent economy. 'When Moy Park, an Ulster company, opened a new plant to supply supermarkets in Great Britain with processed chickens they looked at Kent but they opted for France.'

What swung the decision in favour of France was 'financial support, excellent communications and the offer of a suitable site', said Mr Hemingway, who is on secondment with EKI from Eurotunnel.

The Nord Pas-de-Calais region, he said, has land prices a 10th those of Kent, a well-developed infrastructure and impressive investment incentives including EC Objective 2 funds, he says.

'They also have local authorities which can actually spend money, put in infrastructure and so on, and organisations to promote the area.' He acknowledged that the opening of the tunnel may well intensify that competition in France's favour.

According to the 1991 Kent Impact Study the heavy dependence of East Kent on customs-related activities that will go as a result of the abolition of border checks, together with the end of tunnel construction work, means East Kent, especially Dover, will lose about 10,000 jobs over the next couple of years, and the unemployment rate could rise to 15-20 per cent.

So in East Kent they are praying the Department of Trade and Industry will look kindly on them as it completes - supposedly within the next month - its first review since 1984 of who should qualify for assisted area status.

But if Kent worries about Calais having the advantage when it comes to incentives, Calais too - where unemployment has started to rise again as tunnel construction jobs are lost - looks to neighbours with more resources to offer. The high-speed train line has been centred on Lille, not Calais, which bills itself the gateway to Europe. It will have much to offer in the way of locational, infrastructure and other advantages, as Calais nervously appreciates. In the new open Europe, covetousness is flourishing.

(Photograph omitted)