Jonathan Morrison | Matt Chorley, Red Box Editor | Sam Coates, Deputy Political Editor, Times
Boris Johnson’s suggestion of a bridge across the Channel to link Britain and France could cost up to £120 billion, according to experts.
The foreign secretary raised the prospect of a “fixed link” between the UK and France during a summit with the French president in Sandhurst yesterday. He argued that good connections were vital to both countries and said it was “crazy that two of the biggest economies in the world are connected by one railway line when they are only 20 miles apart”. President Macron apparently replied: “The issue of access is an important one.”
Downing Street was quick to downplay the suggestion, however, with a spokesman saying there were “no specific plans” for a bridge, adding: “What was agreed yesterday, and I think that’s what the foreign secretary tweeted about as well, is a panel of experts who will look at major projects together including infrastructure.”
France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said: “Let’s finish things that are already under way before thinking of new ones.”
Many experts have poured scorn on the idea. Professor Alan Dunlop, who teaches architecture at the University of Liverpool, pointed to the cost of the new 34-mile sea bridge linking Hong Kong and Macau, which came in at £12 billion. “That’s without any regulation, processes, health and safety and using Chinese workers,” he said. “I’d say at least £120 billion for a Channel bridge and that’s a conservative estimate. It would really be cheaper to move France closer.
“Almost anything is technically possible, but is it really the best use of £120 billion?”
Nik Randall, the designer of the proposed Rotherhithe crossing in the capital, asked: “Wouldn’t it be better spent on improving rail links in the north, or building bridges where they’re really needed in London?”
Jonathan Roberts, of the UK Chamber of Shipping, a trade body, added: “The English Channel is the world’s busiest shipping lane with 500 vessels passing through it each day. If a huge bridge was to be constructed across the Channel, it would post considerable difficulties for safe navigation.
“Ninety-five per cent of the UK’s international trade is moved by sea so we need to make shipping operations easier, not harder.”
Even members of his own party disagreed with the proposal. Mark Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin, tweeted: “Such an idea forgets how the English Channel has saved the UK from invasion many many times. It would also be an illegal migrants’ Yellow Brick Road . . . A bridge too far.”
The proposal won support in some quarters, however. Ian Firth, a bridge designer and past president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, said it was not as far-fetched as it may seem.
“It is entirely feasible. Before the tunnel was built there were bridge options being looked at,” he said. “There are bridges of a similar — if not quite the same — scale elsewhere. It would be a huge undertaking, but it would be absolutely possible, and shipping impact issues could be dealt with.”
Christian Bocci, senior partner at Weston Williamson, the architects behind infrastructure projects including Crossrail and the Jubilee Line, said that “the channel tunnel has been a great success and is now at capacity — the principle to establish building another connection route between France and UK is a good one”.
“Many countries are considering long connection routes either within them or to other countries,” he said. “Norway has built tunnels through 25km [15 miles] of mountains and underwater road tunnels in Scandinavia are being considered, among many others.
“The form of automotive transport will radically change in the coming decades and this could facilitate a much lighter and spatially efficient connection — particularly with self-driving car technology coming to the fore.
“This kind of blue-sky, far-sighted, innovative and challenging thinking is to be encouraged because without it we can forego real progress in collective human endeavour. We shouldn’t sniff at these ideas, but relish the chance to design these forms of innovative structures.”
Charlie Elphicke, the Conservative MP for Dover, said: “Boris is right. We absolutely must invest in infrastructure to keep trade flowing between Britain and France.”
Dave Parker, technical editor of New Civil Engineer magazine, told Radio 4 that problems with shipping could be avoided by building artificial islands in the Channel, linked to the shore by viaduct and to one another by a tunnel. The islands could become venues for hotels, casinos and duty-free shops, he suggested, and “autonomous vehicles, steered by AI [artificial intelligence]” would reduce the risk of collisions.
Mr Johnson is not the first to suggest building a bridge across “La Manche” — such a scheme was proposed in April 1981 as an alternative to the Channel Tunnel project then being considered by the Thatcher government. Under the plans, a three-lane motorway between Dover and the French coast would have been carried 220ft above the waves by a 21-mile suspension bridge.
Expected to cost £3 billion at the time, an engineering consortium called LinktoEurope intended charging drivers £5.60 and lorry drivers £8 to cross, raising £220 million a year. Engineers were forced to concede, though, that the 15 huge pylons that the bridge would have required could make navigation of the Channel difficult for ships and eventually the government opted for the “Chunnel”, which was completed in 1994 after eight years of excavation.
Mr Johnson has had grand plans before, however. He was heavily criticised for his involvement in the Garden Bridge project in London, which finally sank without trace last year at a cost of £47.4 million to the public purse. Other schemes he has backed include “Boris Island”, a £47 billion proposal to build an international airport off Kent, and the Emirates AirLine, a cable car across the Thames.
As the Royal Academician and internationally renowned architect Ian Ritchie put it: “He’s p***ed away £47 million on his first bridge balls-up, so I think he should not put his impoverished thinking into advancing a new ‘bridge building’ foreign policy. Keep the buffoon away from the environment and the Channel, and leave the fish alone.”