Merits of British-French tunnel disputed

The decision by the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's administration to reopen talks with the French government about building a channel tunnel between England and France is causing growing concern in Scotland and northeast England.

Many people in the northern part of the United Kingdom fear construction of an Anglo-French railway underground - a project earlier dropped but recently revived by President Mitterrand and supported by Prime Minister Thatcher. The northerners argue it will lead to further serious erosion of Britain's industrial base from the economically depressed north to the relatively prosperous southeast of England. A direct rail link with France would act to draw many factory owners toward London, say the ''chunnel'' critics.

Scotland and areas like Newcastle would become industrial deserts as industry moved south to gain transport benefits from a rapid connection with Common Market countries, claim many northern local authority spokesmen and some business people.

According to this view, Glasgow and even Liverpool would suffer as the lure of lower freight costs started to act as a magnet for manufacturers anxious to operate much nearer several hundred million potential customers living within the European Community.

The British government's attitude seems to be that a direct rail link with France and Europe is a logical development of Common Market trading and will physically seal Britain's relationship with the European Community. And Downing Street is anxious to develop its new understanding with France following this fall's successful visit of Mr. Mitterrand to London.

(The new socialist President seems determined to make the tunnel one of the main objects of his seven years' term of office.)

Mrs. Thatcher has indicated that Britain is ready to resume serious talks with the French about the tunnel, but she is insisting that most of the capital investment from the UK's 50 percent contribution must come from private funds. London financiers have been expressing deep interest in the rail-link project, and the National Union of Railwaymen is keen to see the work started.

Those Scots and northerners who oppose the scheme say the vast amounts of private finance and limited government subsidies mentioned in connection with the tunnel should be spent to revive and modernize factories in the depressed areas of the north.

Others who oppose the project feel it will further socially divide the country between the poverty stricken north and overpopulated and fairly well-off southeast England. And still some other critics feel a channel rail link will make Britain a mere appendage of mainland Europe.

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