Strategic VisionStrategic Vision
Future perspectives (2050)
Author: Pascal Buléon
Translation: Louis Shurmer-Smith


The Channel region already exists. However, its existence today is not particularly evident in the consciousness of its many local players and inhabitants, despite its geography and the centuries of human interaction that have brought it into being. Its effective reality is economic, environmental, cultural, shaped by closely juxtaposed practices, passages and exchanges. It is no longer just a patchwork of smaller areas, each with a strong identity of its own, but interlinked by interdependence, reciprocity and interaction; a multiplicity of various spheres of influence rather than an overall and close-knit unity. It is a narrow sea which acts as both link and buffer between the continent and the island archipelago, as much a corridor as a crossroads. Along its whole length, the actual configuration of its coasts and islands produces distinctive identities and particular practices that are subtle variations on a theme.

To continue the musical metaphor, in the past other scores have prevailed and have continuing impact. In the economic realm there is the theme of the Hanseatic ports 600 years ago, and that of the German, Dutch and Belgian ports at present; the refrain of centuries-old capitals – the global cities of London and Paris. In the political realm the input of the nation-states, England, then Great Britain and France, evolving from monarchical roots through the empires of the 19th century to their contemporary national pre-eminence, side by side with devolved local government. The cultural strand introduces different tones that inflect common practices.

Across the Channel region, history has generated a melange of both shared and distinctive cultural traits, forms moulded by powerful national identities. Political history and the specific social and economic formations of France and Britain have produced marked differences, yet similar economic profiles and practices held in common on both sides of the Channel, long political and cultural histories have wrought a shared heritage and underpinned a culture of kinship. The history of the 20th century, World War I and especially World War II added an affective dimension for the hundreds of thousands of families whose lives were entwined with the fate of states on the beaches of the Channel. An indelible memory would remain.

Recent cross-Channel space-time compressions add a further dimension to the present context. The two sets of opposing influences continue to exist. The sea-crossing simultaneously created a liminal space, a rupture not found at other borders within the European Union, and encouraged a looser set of transfrontier relations. Though a familiarity now exists, there is little shared identity; identities being constructed at other scales whether local or national. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, a new phenomenon is emerging, a sense of belonging and attachment to a regional space with a shared destiny. The reality of this Channel space is not a mere product of some territorial collage, some political construction, it is the outcome of passage, exchange, flow and contact.

What will this region have become for the next generation? Any answer to such a question is clearly of interest to the people who live along the Channel coasts. The following lines attempt to outline some elements of a possible future, they are not a preview or prediction but rather a basis for reflection and debate as to what might be the outcome of present trends and processes. Four to five decades provides a time-frame during which new realities can take shape at a global scale as well as that of the Channel region. Over these lines the present tense is used to describe outcomes that might be the realities of 2050. These are possible developments and amplifications of first indications that are already evident. At one level, this is a fiction spun from scraps of knowledge, there is no pretence of forecasting and it is not necessarily to be taken too seriously ... but nevertheless, it is intended to provide a basis for some serious reflection.

Any project, any collaboration, itself creates a reality of its own, gives coherence to disparate processes. It is the opposite of a ‘laissez-faire' approach in the face of major trends, the clashes brought about by contradictory processes that become all too evident in a confined space.

Today's collaborations have been primarily driven by necessity in conditions where the outcome was uncertain. Without minimising their importance, it is also worth considering other opportunities that are currently underestimated or ignored completely. Potential opportunities demand even greater imagination and project development before they can become substantive, requiring considerable audacity and sense of purpose.




The Channel will continue to be an increasingly frequented thoroughfare. Stakeholders must agree that it needs not only to remain a ‘through' passage but that it can also drive its own development and add its own value in a number of ways, including those relating to environmental conservation.

This strategic routeway has experienced relatively little benefit as a consequence of the concentration of economic and demographic growth and pressure on the environment. There are still many more challenges to be faced. One of these is related to climate change and its impact on everyday life. Initially one might not expect such concerns along the Channel coasts. However, the continuing rise in sea level and erosion of the coastline in the context of further population pressure suggests that within a generation problems will have come into sharper focus, both systematically and operationally. Existing areas of settlement are already threatened and, though predictions of sea-level rise vary, the problem is ever present. Even if the direst predictions do not materialise, extensive areas of coast will still be affected by even moderate rises. The impact of increased human activity needs to be factored into this long-term environmental problem.

The coexistence of activities as divergent as housing, port operation, tourism, leisure, fishing, energy generation, nature conservation, already provides a source of conflict. One can easily envisage that the management of such land-use competition will become even more problematic over the next 3 to 4 decades.

Until recently, the question of energy has not been particularly associated with the Channel. However, the globally changing parameters of energy generation must inevitably impact on the region's environment. From the mid-20th century, the Channel, with its three major oil ports at Southampton, Le Havre-Antifer and Dunkirk, has served as the conduit for tankers bringing oil to northern Europe, France and Britain. This situation will continue for as long as oil remains a major source of energy, but questions of policy are now being raised. Nuclear power generation is already to be found on both sides of the Channel, particularly in Picardy and Normandy, the latter with a major waste reprocessing plant at La Hague. Debates about the future of energy supply and the fuller use of alternative sources raise a number of pertinent questions for the Channel region.

Energy generated from the sea was developed very early on in the Rance estuary in Brittany during the 1950s. What will its future be? A range of technologies generating energy from the movement of the sea, waves, tides and currents, are being tested in many places in Europe and elsewhere. The Channel sea, with its hundreds of kilometres of coastline experiences one of the highest tidal ranges in the world and thus has considerable potential in marine energy. Will this be exploited? In the same way, the question can be asked of wind energy, where development is already far more advanced than for marine sources. Inland, numerous wind-powered turbines are already generating electricity. Wind farms as yet may not have assumed a high level of importance, other than off the Kent coast, but the question of developing sites on water is being considered in several locations. The potential for wind power generation along the coasts of the Channel is amongst the highest in Europe.

The growth that will eventually be achieved by these two new forms of energy raises two questions. The first of these relates to the future geographical spread of the networks developed. In contrast to the major power stations, far removed from the main centres of consumption and necessitating distribution grids (that are themselves the object of opposition and litigation), the newer sources of energy offer the possibility of being located closer to consumers, resulting in a quite different set of land-use issues. Greater diversification of supply opens up the debate, but until now the development of alternatives has not envisaged total substitution or the disappearance of all-too-familiar long distance overland power-lines.

The second question, already in contention within the Channel area is that of potential land-use conflict. Professions such as fishing that depend on the sea remain largely opposed, whether to the wind farms out at sea today or the wave generation platforms of tomorrow. Within just one generation the Channel, hitherto essentially a transit corridor for the inward shipment of imported oil, will become a production zone for renewable energy.

Maritime transport today remains one of the strongest defining characteristics of the Channel region, such are the volumes of traffic both between Europe and the rest of the world and between the British archipelago and the continent. This traffic grew particularly rapidly at the turn of the century, now accounting for a quarter of all world trade. All of the major ports have plans for expansion. Intra-European freight trade is also growing. As a result, movement of traffic in the Channel is subject to the same phenomenon that menaces the main access roads and junctions of large cities – congestion. The Channel as the locus for the growth of modes of transport leading to congestion could at the same time be the place where intermodality helps to redress the situation whilst also relieving pressure on the population and the environment. This theatre of constant mobility, arrivals, crossings and departures can either watch as present trends continue or embark on total reorganisation. The almost inescapable growth of large vessel traffic from the whole world is likely to prolong waiting times in the Channel, which will virtually become an antechamber to the North Sea ports. It is also likely to encourage a greater role being played by the Channel ports themselves in effecting inter-modal transfer to improved rail/fluvial links, a rebirth of European short-sea shipping within a reorganisation of the ports network.

This modal transfer, the intermodality (from road to rail and water) between long distance deep sea routes and terrestrial modes and between the British archipelago and the continent are all questions on the European agenda that find particular resonance in the Channel. As such they constitute a major challenge. Putting into place the means to increase the volume of water-borne traffic, the capture of part of the through trade for the Channel ports and their hinterlands, the shift from road to short sea-routes and onto rail from the Channel ports would all translate into added value for adjoining regions. This would finally mark a break with the long-standing practice whereby through traffic with minimal spin-off has prevailed. The new logistics of the 21st century are such that partnership between all parts of the transport sector, with intermediating financial and commercial services, assume a more prominent role in processing and assembly of goods. It may also result in the creation of new structures and organisations involved in trade and communications: harbours out at sea for ‘megamax' vessels, feedering networks, new short-sea shipping, new fast-ship intercontinental routes and maritime distribution hubs.

Information technologies will greatly influence and accelerate the whole process of change. This will help to create a conducive environment in the hinterlands of the ports, with development zones integrated into the urban network and linked into the new logistics. This is but one future scenario open to the regions of the Channel in the decades to come, but it does not represent a simple prolongation of existing trends. Present conditions may prove to be enabling, but only determined action from the local to the European scale will ensure the necessary stimulus.

Much the same applies with respect to the knowledge industries. As in many other regions, their entry essentially developed via a time-space matrix that had existed for centuries; this implied operating within their own national context around their own particular areas of strength. Economic interpenetration across both national and bi-national regions shows every sign of continuing. To the existing roles carved out by each of the cities, counties, departments and regions, it becomes necessary to add another parallel scale of operation, that of an extended network straddling the Channel. This, in turn, brings cooperative links from further afield, in America and Asia. “Coopetition,” of course, blurs notions of ‘cooperation' and ‘competition' and arguably represents one of the ways of achieving critical mass, a wider structure of influence (if somewhat diverse, but related) and increased visibility overseas in order to acquire a place alongside the major cities like London and Paris that cast a long shadow across such a large part of the Channel region.

Such issues stemming from current trends necessitate determined courses of action, and prompts the consideration of governance at the scale of the cross-Channel region itself.

The construction of the European Union, the cooperation between states, the internal histories of both France and Britain raise the question of the choice of scale appropriate to the resolution of the various problems currently confronting the Channel region and also its institutional capacity for initiative and intervention at the level of the trans-national region. This is a question that has already been the subject of much debate over the past decade which is unlikely to diminish over the next three. Recent years have seen the emergence regionally of a number of associations and groupings; foremost among these being the Arc Manche. At EU level sectorial interests, such as fishing, are covered, as are key Community/national policy matters like maritime safety. At the level of the cross-Channel region, however, we remain at an as yet indeterminate stage of governance not properly equipped to articulate regionally-based policies. The possibility clearly exists of constructing an operational cross-Channel region, fully implicating EU, inter-state and inter-regional/local government levels. Certainly, new support structures would be required, a Standing Conference, consultative committees, special interest groups and the like. Simply permitting the continuation of the trends currently shaping the Channel region leaves the probability of an uncontrolled build-up of congestion, an increasingly atrophied maritime thoroughfare, the difficult cohabitation of competing activities against a backdrop of increasingly dense settlement. This is clearly not a desirable development prospect; instead what is preferred is one that gains in flexibility and coherence whilst still retaining distinctive identities. All the local players, the respective local/regional authorities, would become the beneficiaries of cross-linkage and shared knowledge. The Channel region would itself increase its presence in Europe and the wider world and would also be able to reduce the obstacles to which it remains exposed.

Is it unthinkable to construct such a future? Improbable? Unnecessary? Certainly not unnecessary, given the considerable problems that local authorities and communities currently face. As to being improbable, that depends largely on the audacity and will to engage in political and economic risk-taking. Unthinkable – on the contrary, it is the very act of thinking that leads the numerous players to generate for themselves a goal and a timescale that can make such a future a reality.