Water highway meets wave of protest

Scheme to link North Sea with the Irish Sea angers environmentalists
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The Independent Online
It might seem like the most ambitious scheme since Moses tried to part the Red Sea, but a plan to build a 53-mile "water highway" from the North Sea to the Irish Sea is to be presented to councillors across the north of England over the next month.

Yesterday, the scheme, estimated to cost pounds 6bn, received a cool welcome from the North of England Councils Association and it has already attracted the wrath of environmentalists. But the idea's promoter, a retired engineer called Derek Russell, is undeterred and sees it as the answer to the problems of pollution and gridlock in the roads of the South-east.

With tentative backing from AMEC, the engineering firm, and a couple of other companies, Mr Russell has created the Western Water Highway Association to push forward the idea. The association hopes to begin a feasibility study soon.

Mr Russell does not like the term "canal" as it suggests "a few sleepy fishermen on a seven-foot wide stretch of water". Instead he sees the link between the Solway Firth and the Tyne at Newcastle as a water highway, like the one recently built in central Europe linking the Danube with the Rhine.

He reckons it would carry about 200 million tonnes of freight a year between emerging markets between northern and Eastern Europe and north- west England and Ireland. He said: "Why should all these goods go down south where there is already too much traffic and the pollution is giving asthma to millions of children?"

While arguing that the environmental benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, he accepts that there are some problems in the Tyne Valley, west of Newcastle, but says there is no threat to Hadrian's Wall: "It would only cross the line of the wall at one point, but there is nothing left of the wall for about six miles on either side."

However, Roger Higman, transport campaigner of Friends of the Earth, says the effect of the scheme would be devastating: "The Solway Firth, one of the most important areas for birds, would have to be dredged. There would be lots of new housing built in rural areas and in any case the whole thing is totally unnecessary. Suez and Panama might be good short-cuts, but this one isn't worth the trouble. We will be fighting it all the way."

After yesterday's meeting at Hartlepool Civic Centre, Councillor John McCormack, chairman of NECA, said they were not adopting either a "for or against" stance at this stage, but pressing for improvements to existing rail and road links.

He added: "This does not mean we are against the Western Water Highway, but we want the emphasis to be on the immediate problems which can be dealt with in the short-term before talking about something more grandiose and for the next century."