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'We owe Channel Tunnel to Margaret Thatcher'

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signs the agreement that created the Channel Tunnel in 1986
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signs the agreement that created the Channel Tunnel in 1986

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signs the agreement that created the Channel Tunnel in 1986

by business editor Trevor Sturgess

Without Margaret Thatcher, Kent would not have the Channel Tunnel, according to a senior figure who met her several times before and during construction.

"She gave Kent the Channel Tunnel," said John Noulton. "Not all of Kent wanted it, but they have come to find that it hasn't done them any harm at all and indeed has brought them some good."

Mr Noulton, 74, was working for the Department of Transport in the mid-1980s when plans for a fixed link were revived by the Thatcher government. He had also been involved in the former Chunnel proposal which was aborted in 1975.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

"We wouldn't have had a Channel Tunnel without Margaret Thatcher, that’s unquestionable," said Mr Noulton, who later joined the Transmanche Link (TML) construction consortium as administration director and then Eurotunnel as head of public affairs. He lived in Folkestone during most of that time and is still involved in the Elham Valley Line Trust which has an emerging Eurotunnel museum.

He recalls the then Prime Minister's surprise when officials recommended Eurotunnel's proposal for a rail and shuttle train system, with two main bores and a service tunnel.

"Margaret Thatcher was slightly surprised that we'd come up with the idea of a railway tunnel. She had imagined it would be a bridge or a drive-through tunnel. But having seen the recommendation she was relaxed about it. Once she decided we were having a tunnel, doors opened.”

He recalled that President Francois Mitterand was disappointed that the UK had come up with a rail option, hoping for a more grandiose project. But the Eurotunnel plan had the least environmental objections and used known technology. Mrs Thatcher went on to become honorary president of the Triangle Club for old tunnelers.

The late Sir Alastair Morton, chief executive of Eurotunnel, "admired her as a person, decision-maker and leader," said Mr Noulton. "She was also very keen on industrial development and employment issues and that's why she supported all the various initiatives Eurotunnel was involved in. You should think of her as a benevolent dictator."

He spent his last days in the Civil Service at 10 Downing Street. "She was a formidable woman. I've never seen anyone like her in my time with the exception of Churchill. It was slightly terrifying because if you butted in to say something, she turned her full attention on you and it was like being caught in a lorry's headlights and you knew damn-well you had to have your facts right and no weak arguments, otherwise she would destroy you.

"She had a tremendously sharp intellect. I've seen her bring people almost to tears but at the personal level she was charming. I saw her in the House of Commons and she would stop and exchange pleasantries with you."

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