"Mega-canal" proposal distributed in Government

Canal running from Pennines to London would transport goods, power and water.

Aecom, an American professional services company, has proposed construction of a "mega-canal" running from the Scottish borders to London. The canal, which would cost £14bn to create, be 24m wide and run alongside a high-voltage power cable, is intended to provide solutions to future issues with water supply, power transmission and sustainable transport.

Yesterday, Construction Manager magazine reported that the proposal was implicitly supported by DECC's scientific adviser David McKay, who distributed copies to to officials at the BIS, Defra and the Department for Transport, and describes the reasoning behind it:

The canal would help to mitigate any future drought and also supply additional irrigation to the agricultural sector, by feeding Scottish water into existing waterways.

And as well as offering a sustainable alternative to road and rail freight, facilitating the movement of biomass fuel to the south, it could also carry High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cables in special compartments, with the water providing natural cooling.

Aecom's associate director David Weight argues that there's real hope for the proposal:

“We think that unlike HS2, local authorities would be queuing up to have a canal going through their area. As for funding, we’d anticipate a multi-stakeholder approach. There are many organisations that could either save money by using the canal or extract a toll for others to use it — for instance Scottish Power, Scottish Water, the National Grid…

The canal would also be perfect for associated developments, such as eco-towns — the power and water are already there.

The proposal is an elegant – if rather brute-force – method of combining solutions to several problems facing Britain today. Unlike the Victorian Georgian age of canals, which were primarily built for transportation of goods, Aecom envisages a greater focus being on the transportation of water, from the pennines down to the drought-ridden South East. The transmission of goods would be only secondary – although with shipping being one of the most environmentally friendly methods of transport around, it's not inconceivable that it could have a second wind.

Adding in transport of power on top, solving three problems in one, is also a very good idea. But despite that, this remains blue-sky thinking. The joined-up nature which is its greatest strength is also the single biggest reason why it's unlikely to be implemented: as good as it is at solving a number of problems, it's not likely to be the best method to solve any individual one. DECC would rather increase generation capacity; the DfT would rather focus on rails and roads; and Defra's water strategy doesn't envisage any large scale transport of water.

Instead, it's best to look at the Aecom proposal as something between a wonderful highlight of how low we now aim with our mega-projects, and porn for infrastructure geeks. With a little bit of steampunk thrown in for good measure, too – now, how about those zeppelins?

Update: @BorisWatch points out I have got my ages of canals wrong. By the time Victoria was on the throne, the railway boom had all but killed canals.

A map of the proposed route. Photograph: Construction Manager

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”