Morton lashes at Government over tunnel

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The Independent Online

Sir Alastair Morton, co-chairman of Eurotunnel, is today due to launch a strong attack on government failures that have brought the Channel Tunnel project to the edge of collapse.

In a conference speech, Sir Alastair - who will be followed immediately by the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine - will accuse politicians and civil servants of reneging on promises.

Baroness Thatcher, the political driving force behind getting the project launched, is said to have missed "the blindingly obvious" when dealing with the financing. And Treasury officials are said to have "cotton wool between the ears".

The speech, seen by the Independent, says that similar large-scale projects should never again be financially structured in the same way.

While the contractors built the tunnel and banks arranged financing, Sir Alastair says the development ran into difficulties because there was no real client at the outset. "An immense stress was welded into the heavily loaded structure," Sir Alastair says.

Problems were compounded by Mrs Thatcher's demands that no public money should be put into the project, and a lack of government investment in the UK's infrastructure.

Mrs Thatcher, he says, "was, of course, guilty of an extraordinary form of tunnel vision. She could not see the blindingly obvious - that the tunnel was no more than a major link in a chain of public sector infrastructures: the road and rail systems of the UK and Continental Europe. Thus, her project was only capable of flourishing with investment in appropriate physical and administrative infrastructures on both sides - something the French well understand."

Eurotunnel, currently renegotiating its pounds 8bn of debt with its 225 banks, has had calls for state help rejected. But Sir Alastair, referring to the public finance initiative, said similar large capital projects will only succeed if "it is possible to blend public purse and private capital in them". This was a novelty that had not yet sunk into "the acid-soaked cotton wool between the ears of Treasury civil servants", Sir Alastair said.

"Eurotunnel is currently making clear to the British and French governments that certain promises have not been delivered and restitution needs to be disclosed.

"So once again, the Channel Tunnel structure is revealed to be incomplete, but the lesson to be learned is clear. Unless Her Majesty's Government delivers its side of the PFI bargains, an excellent initiative will founder."

The speech may prove embarrasing for Mr Heseltine, who is speaking immediately after Sir Alastair and is expected to reply to some of the points.

Meanwhile, yesterday the European Investment Bank, believed to be Eurotunnel's largest creditor, said it remained "fully committed to the success" of the company.

Sir Brian Unwin, the EIB's president, told a press conference in Brussels that the bank was "substantially" committed to what he called "this great international project".