Peer Lord Howell apologises over 'desolate' North East remark

Lord Howell: "There are large uninhabited areas in the North East where there's plenty of room for fracking"

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A Tory peer has apologised for "any offence caused" after he said fracking should take place in "the North East" because it was "desolate".

Former energy secretary Lord Howell had said there was less concern there than for "beautiful natural areas".

He was criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Friends of the Earth.

Apologising, Lord Howell of Guildford said there were parts of both the North East and the south that were "less densely inhabited than others".

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.

'Jaw-dropping'

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?

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

"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."

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."

Following the criticism, Lord Howell issued a statement saying: "I apologise for any offence caused. I certainly did not intend to suggest that the North East is desolate and I do not believe it to be the case. There are parts of the country that are less densely inhabited than others.

"That includes parts of the North East but also other areas in the south of England as well. The shale gas industry should be encouraged to develop in a sustainable way where it is appropriate to do so and in way that ensures communities benefit, which could be in many different parts of country."

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

But Labour MP for Newcastle North Catherine McKinnell said the peer's remarks demonstrated that the Conservative Party was "out of touch".

"It's right that Lord Howell has apologised for these offensive comments but such outdated opinions leave a lasting impression," she said.

Andy Wilson, chief executive of the North York Moors National Park Authority, said the authority had received initial contact from companies over fracking for shale.

"It's something that in the longer term we're expecting to deal with," he said.

"But we shouldn't start with an assumption it's empty and desolate; it's beautiful and peopled."

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