UK Politics

Fracking OK for 'desolate' North East, says Tory peer

Fracking should be carried out in the North East of England, where there are large, "desolate" areas, a former energy secretary has said.

Lord Howell of Guildford argued there was "plenty of room" for developments and less concern than was the case over "beautiful natural areas".

But the Archbishop of Canterbury disagreed, calling the North East "beautiful, rugged, welcoming".

Downing Street said Lord Howell did not speak for the government.

Fracking - short for "hydraulic fracturing" - involves drilling deep under ground and releasing a high-pressure mix of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals to crack rocks and release gas stored inside.

Water companies are worried the process could contaminate drinking water aquifers that lie above shale gas reserves. But supporters of fracking say it is safe and essential to making the UK more energy self-sufficient.

Widespread fracking has not started in the UK yet, but Cuadrilla began exploratory drilling in Lancashire in 2011 and many other possible sites have been identified.

'Distinction'

During Lords Questions, Conservative Lord Howell, who was energy secretary from 1979 to 1981, asked: "Would you accept that it could be a mistake to think of and discuss fracking in terms of the whole of the United Kingdom in one go?

"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."

He added: "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."

Despite outbursts from other peers, Lord Howell continued, turning to energy minister Baroness Verma and asking: "So would you agree with me, that the distinction should be made between one area and another, rather than lump them all together?

"And if we can push ahead with this kind of gas production, then obviously it takes us fast away from the kind of coal burning, which is increasing at the moment because of delays in authorising gas production."

Labour's Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton said: "I declare an interest as a resident of Lancashire, who is aware of the enormous beauty of the Trough of Bowland.

"Would you, minister, join with me in condemning the alleged remarks of protesters in the south of England, that all the fracking could be done in the north of England?

"And will you join with me in insisting that the beauty of Lancashire is as important, not more but as important, as the beauties surrounding, for example, Guildford?"

'Jaw-dropping'

Baroness Verma first addressed her Conservative colleague, saying: "As members are aware, [fracking] is at its early stages of exploration and there will be areas of landscape that won't be suitable for fracking, as you rightly point out.

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland
Bamburgh Castle is among the North East's famed beauty spots

"But we are in its early stages and as the government is determined to ensure that we are not dependent on coal but more on gas, and low-carbon energy sources, I think you make some very important points."

She told Baroness Farrington: "I'm sure that my noble friend did not say that Lancashire was [not] as beautiful. All parts of this great country are beautiful."

Lord Howell, the father-in-law of Chancellor George Osborne, was also the minister in the Foreign Office responsible for international energy policy between 2010 and 2012.

After the comments, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, wrote on Twitter: "North east England very beautiful, rugged, welcoming, inspiring, historic, advancing, not 'desolate' as was said in House of Lords today."

Friends of the Earth's Tony Bosworth called the comments "jaw-dropping", adding: "The government's ill-conceived fracking plans aren't something that can be quietly brushed under the carpet 'up north' - as the villages resisting the drillers in the Tory heartlands of England's south show."

North East Chamber of Commerce's director of policy, Ross Smith, said: "To be frank, this is a ridiculous way to describe a region that boasts some of the most beautiful unspoiled countryside in the UK and a host of the most recognisable and cherished landmarks and attractions in the country.

"However, if the point that Lord Howell is trying to make - albeit in a totally bizarre way - is that the North East has the expertise, the skills and the businesses within our energy sector to help solve the UK's energy issues then I would wholeheartedly agree."

And Claire Norman, spokeswoman for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "We can't have a situation where it's OK for the South to think these things should happen in the North, or indeed vice versa."

A government spokesman said: "Lord Howell is not a minister and does not speak for the government. He has not been a government adviser since April 2013."

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