Lord apologises over 'desolate' row

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Lord Howell issued an apology tonight amid a storm of criticism for suggesting that fracking should be carried out in the "desolate" North East of England.

The Tory peer, who was a government adviser on energy policy until April, insisted he had not meant to insult the region.

"I apologise for any offence caused," he said in a statement. "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."

Lord Howell of Guildford, who is George Osborne's father-in-law, said the controversial hydraulic fracturing drilling technique could be used in the North East with no impact on the surrounding environment.

Speaking during questions in the Upper House, he said: "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."

To stunned exclamations, the southern-based peer 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."

He said it was important to make distinctions between areas, rather than "lump them all together".
The Foreign Office moved quickly to make clear that Lord Howell - a minister at the department until last September's reshuffle - was no longer William Hague's adviser on energy policy.

Although no announcement was made, he apparently left the role in April because he "wanted to pursue a wider range of interests".

Asked why the peer's biography and job title was still on the gov.uk website, officials insisted it was only updated "periodically".

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby led criticism of the remarks, posting on Twitter: "North East England very beautiful, rugged, welcoming, inspiring, historic, advancing, not 'desolate' as was said in House of Lords today."

Conservative politicians also distanced themselves from the comments by Lord Howell, who served as Energy Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.

Stockton South MP James Wharton said: "I think his comments about the North East are foolish and ill-informed."

But the MP stressed that he supported fracking. "It will undoubtedly create large numbers of highly-skilled well-paid jobs and I hope the North East will play a significant part in that."

Labour MP for Newcastle North, Catherine McKinnell, said: "It's right that Lord Howell has apologised for these offensive comments but such outdated opinions leave a lasting impression.

"We are seeing that despite David Cameron's claims to have changed his party they are still completely out of touch."

Andy Wilson, chief executive of the North York Moors National Park Authority, said: "Half of England's National Parks are in the north and the most tranquil areas are in the north of England. These parks are the nation's lungs."

He said that the authority was aware of the issue of fracking for shale, and had received initial contact from companies.

"It's something that in the longer term we're expecting to deal with, but we shouldn't start with an assumption it's empty and desolate; it's beautiful and peopled," he said.

Anti-fracking supporter Bianca Jagger tonight disputed the reported benefits that it could bring.
She told BBC South East Today: "The promises for jobs, for lowering the price of fossil fuel - all of that has not been proven.

"What about the concerns that people have that (fracking) will be damaging the water sources, that it will damage the environment, that it will industrialise a beautiful area of countryside?

"This is not the only place where it will be happening."

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