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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 August 2006, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
'Dream location' a challenge for Kent
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News, in Kent

Eurostar train emerging from the Channel Tunnel
The completion of the high-speed rail link should give Kent a boost
Kent has rubbed shoulders with the continent ever since Julius Caesar landed on a beach near Deal in 55BC.

The county's economic fortunes have been boosted every time the UK has deepened its relationship with the continent.

Most recently, Kent has benefited from the opening of the Channel Tunnel.

About 20 million tonnes of freight a year are transported through the tunnel, much of it shipped by companies basing themselves in Kent to exploit its proximity to the continent.

Location, location, location

Five of the UK's top ten freight forwarding firms are situated here while many European firms have located their British operations in the county because of its perceived advantages.

"The decision was made because Kent was the nearest point to Germany," says Hans Cohnen, managing director of German engineering firm Cohline, one of the first to set up shop here in the 1990s.

Cohline, which manufactures fluid, brake and steering systems for BMW and Ford among others, now employs nearly 100 staff near Ramsgate.

One of Kent's problems is that although it is the gateway to Europe, not much of the economic wealth has stuck to the sides
Stephen Jordan, London and Continental Railways

"To be honest the biggest reason for coming here was (lower) wages and because you didn't have any problems with trade unions," he explains.

This was just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and well before the advent of the Channel Tunnel or the single currency.

But times have changed.

The UK's competitive advantage has eroded as wages have risen and car firms on the continent have shifted operations to eastern Europe to cut labour costs.

"The advantage that England had has completely gone."

But Cohline is still committed to the Kent operation, thanks to its highly trained staff and the speed with which it can deliver goods back to Germany - urgent items can be in Frankfurt in about seven hours.

"You put a lot of effort to get your people trained," he says. "The skills people have here are definitely better than those in eastern Europe.

"It would be a little bit unfair to say after ten years - go home!"

Corridor problem

Kent is commonly known as the gateway to Europe but many are sceptical about the actual benefits its population has gained from the county's widely-envied geographical position.

They point to the environmental impact of road building schemes and the fact that most tourists using the Tunnel or Eurostar services rarely spend any money in Kent.

Stefan Schreiber (left) and Hans Cohnen of Cohline
One German business wants to be as close to home as possible

"One of Kent's problems is although it is the gateway to Europe, not much of the economic wealth has stuck to the sides," acknowledges Stephen Jordan, managing director of London and Continental Railways (LCR) which operates Eurostar UK.

"It has become a transit corridor."

But this could be about to change for the better.

LCR believes the completion of the high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link to central London next year - for which it is responsible - will help transform much of the county's economy.

Journeys between Paris and Ashford International will take less than two hours when Eurostar services start using the track next year.

Domestic services will not begin until 2009, as new trains need to be built, but commuting times from towns such Canterbury and Dover to London will be cut significantly when they do.

"This will transform the geography of Kent, giving it tremendous accessibility" says Mr Jordan.

Station renaissance

The centrepiece of LCR's plans is a new 100m station at Ebbsfleet, a few miles south of Dartford on the edge of the M25.

From there, passengers will get to St Pancras in less than 20 minutes.

Ebbsfleet's proximity to the City - it will be just ten minutes journey time from Stratford in east London - means it has become one of Europe's largest regeneration projects.

Planes at Kent International Airport
Kent International Airport has struggled to establish itself

More than 3bn is to be spent on new office premises and residential properties along the southern strip of the Thames Gateway, with the potential to create 16,000 jobs by 2020.

Many of these jobs will be created by European firms, Mr Jordan hopes.

"If you look at west London, it has a who's who of US businesses because North American business comes in from Heathrow and goes to London.

"Effectively in North Kent we can become almost the Heathrow corridor on the east for European facing businesses."

It will be "a challenge" promoting the hitherto unknown Ebbsfleet to European travellers and companies, but Mr Jordan believes the 2012 Olympics could put it on the map due to its great access to east London.

"I think there is a very good case for a hotel cluster around Ebbsfleet.

"There are very few places which I believe can capture the Olympics dividend and sustain it. I think that Ebbsfleet can."

It is hoped that the rail link will have a positive effect on Kent businesses doing business with Europe, even those far from London.

"The Channel Tunnel rail link is potentially a huge benefit to us in terms of getting people here," says Christopher Lawson, managing director of London Fancy Box Company, a third of whose products are now shipped to continental Europe.

Up in the air

Kent's commercial links with Europe may be stronger than they have ever been but there is a lingering sense of peripherality.

Much of this has to do with its limited access to a major international airport - a bone of contention for many firms.

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Last year's collapse of EU Jet - the main user of Kent International Airport at Manston - was a blow to the county's pride.

Passenger services to Spain and Portugal resumed in May but local firms are frustrated about the slow pace of the airport's development.

"If you want Manston to become a second Gatwick you need a proper transport network," says Cohline's UK sales manager Stefan Schreiber, who lives in Margate.

"How do you get to the airport from Ramsgate station apart from a taxi? There is no rail link, there are no proper roads.

"There is obviously great potential there but it is one element of Kent they haven't been looking after."

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