Lord Howell has got himself into a spot of fracking bother this afternoon. The Newcastle Chronicle reports that George Osborne’s father-in-law says fracking should be carried out in ‘unhabituated and desolate areas’. Nothing too controversial about that, except Howell singled out the north east of England, where there is apparently ‘plenty of room’. Howell — an energy secretary under Margaret Thatcher — said at Lords’ questions:
‘I mean there obviously are, in beautiful natural areas, worries about not just the drilling and the fracking, which I think are exaggerated, but about the trucks, and the delivery, and the roads, and the disturbance, and those about justified worries.
‘But there are large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part of the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence where we could conduct without any kind of threat to the rural environment.’
Howell’s statement has probably been slightly misconstrued, but it doesn’t help how the Conservative Party is perceived in the north, where many still view them as pure evil. These sweeping remarks are the sort of thing that the new campaign group Renewal is battling against. Director David Skelton has this to say on Howell’s remarks:
‘I was surprised to hear Lord Howell talk about the “desolate” landscape of the North East. As a proud North Easterner, I know that such a description isn’t even close to the truth. The North East boasts some of the finest and most picturesque landscapes in the country, from Durham Cathedral and Bamburgh Castle, to the delights of the North Eastern countryside and the Northumbrian coastline. I’d be delighted to give Lord Howell a tour of the North East to show him that it’s far from desolate and is, in fact, one of the gems of the nation.
‘There is, of course, a real potential that that shale gas could play a significant role in meeting our energy challenges. It could provide a real jobs boost to areas like the North East, which shouldn’t be dismissed. The choice over where fracking should take place should be taken by local communities, rather than being based on and outmoded, inaccurate view of “the North”.’
Howell will no doubt apologise, but the story is already dominating the local media and, to many, it will add to the impression that the Tories care more about protecting the South East than winning over the North.
UPDATE: As predicted, Lord Howell has apologised for ‘any offence caused’:
Lord Howell apologises for “any offence caused” by his comments and insists he does not believe the north east is “desolate”.
— Krishnan Guru-Murthy (@krishgm) July 30, 2013