Don't pity the banks

The press has got it wrong over the Channel tunnel's financial losses, says Alastair Morton
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Only a few outside the tabloid pursuits of royalty have experienced or will experience on the same scale, in one morning, the buzz, whine and splat of ricocheting adjectives, adverbs, pictures, cartoons, and even complete sentences that Tuesday morning's press fired my way, after Eurotunnel announced losses for last year of pounds 925m. Patrick Ponsolle, my partner as French co-chairman, was also having a lively time.

It's part of the job at Eurotunnel, a job that for more than nine years has been exhilarating, stimulating and very challenging. Getting the tunnel built was a voyage through the English psyche that has reached its destination. It is built and its benefits are becoming evident, but the Independent's invitation (leading article, "Thank the banks for our tunnel", 23 April) to pity our creditor banks ignores history.

The opening of the Channel tunnel is the achievement of thousands. That it took nine years to reach full operation is history. That it cost about 65 per cent more to build than estimated initially is also history. That the extra cost and, much more, the delays have imposed a crippling debt service burden is a fact for which the project partners share responsibility, not a duty of pity. The "culture of blame" in Britain today is deeply unhealthy: we should rather talk of responsibilities, of which - as the French put it - each must take his (or her) own. Responsibility is positive, different from and anterior to blame.

We in Eurotunnel, particularly the co-chairmen, accept our responsibility to our shareholders. Our task is to pursue delivery of their expectations, either by our own team or by others. If we fall short, we apologise, as we did in last year's report, and we keep striving, as we promised. Others, too, have accepted or must accept their responsibilities: governments, suppliers - and the promoters of this grand project.

The promoters, who to their eternal credit put this project together between 1984 and 1987, were 10 contractors who became TML, and five banks who volunteered to arrange the loans that were the condition precedent of our shareholders' investment.

Let us remember the promoters with respect. The Channel tunnel was not promoted by an independent, listed group called Eurotunnel. We arrived months later in 1986, charged as client with achieving delivery of the promises made by the first three partners. Thus all four partners - the two governments, contractors, bankers and client - took on responsibilities to each other. Much has been delivered, but many hopes are still deferred and subject to modification.

In 1985, the five promoter banks reconfirmed that no state funds or guarantees were needed. In 1986, without a live client, they put together terms for underwriting pounds 5bn in loans to the project. By November 1987 they had a client to attempt delivery of the promises; they had 45 or more underwriting banks fully on board and briefed; eventually they drew 180 more banks into their syndicate. They had with them their own choice of engineering, legal, economic, management and other specialist advisers with total access to the project throughout the coming years, insulated from any control by the client.

About 40 per cent of the banks made no further commitment after November 1987, and their funds were fully disbursed by November 1990. The remaining banks committed further funds from December 1990. In September 1992, the banks completed an absolutely fundamental review of whether to stop the project or go forward to completion and commissioning. After listening to their advisers, they continued and now the tunnel is open.

We are partners with our bankers. Without them there would have been no project. Without the governments, the contractors, our shareholders and our own staff - no project. The fulfilment of each partner's expectations has been delayed or deferred. Each partner has responsibilities still to take before the final reckoning is struck. We hope and believe there will be more for our shareholders - the last comers to the partnership and the most vulnerable - than the press is wont to say in its "creditor takes all" fashion. Each partner must negotiate and take a due share of any pain, and hope to recuperate later.

Sir Alastair Morton is chairman of Eurotunnel.

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