I have to break my silence! I'm a Geordie - no really, I am. Born in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne. Then brought up in Durham for the first formative couple of years of life. As far as I can see, Lord Howell has been in politics and journalism all his working life, and is a Home Counties' man through and through. His title is Baron Howell of Guildford of Penton Mewsey (a picturesque village in a sparsely populated bit of Hampshire). I discover that "the village is home to approximately 400 people and has about 110 houses. The name Penton derives from the word Penitone, which is a word for a farm held at penny rent. Until the 1920's the Pentons (Mewsey and contiguous Grafton) were mainly agricultural communities supporting sheep and corn, typical of northern Hampshire at the time. The Pentons are still surrounded by farmland which is currently completely arable" (Jody Cletus).
“There are obviously in beautiful rural areas, worries not just about the drilling and the fracking, which I think are exaggerated, but about the trucks, the delivery and the roads and the disturbance,” Lord Howell said. “And those are quite justified worries.”
“But there are large uninhabited and desolate areas, certainly up in the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking well away from anyone’s residence where it can be conducted without any kind of threat to the rural environment.” And I must say I wasn't too impressed by the widespread mirth with which his remarks were greeted by his colleagues. I commented on my status, "As Geordie, what can I say - except I'm desolated!"
Someone pointed out to me that desolate means "devoid of inhabitants, deserted", which is true; but it also has the sense of "bleak and unwelcoming" - which is not true. As Justin Welby, who was Bishop of Durham before being moved to Canterbury, tweated: "North east England very beautiful, rugged, welcoming, inspiring, historic, advancing, not 'desolate' as was said in House of Lords today." I'd suggest the three pictures confirm this perspective.
My real beef with the noble peer is his presumption to know what the North-easterners would like done with their back yard. What he calls large "uninhabited and desolate areas" are the lungs and recreational facilities for the millions living in the large conurbations of the area. It may be that they would like the employment that fracking would generate. But he should first ask himself whether he'd welcome the industry, with its associated infrastructure, to the Test Valley, or wherever his favourite place of unspoiled beauty is. One of my interlocutors argued stoutly in Lord Howell's defence on the grounds of our need for cleaner energy sources and of the North east's need for employment. I tend to agree that the evidence for associated seismic activity and pollution of watercourses is dubious, though not disproved. On the other hand another uncertainty is whether our reserves would prove sufficient to contribute significantly to our energy security. It's very doubtful. Sadly because of our and Europe's inaction we have almost lost one of the renewable energy industries in which we were world leaders, the production of top-grade silicon wafers, essential ingredients of solar panels, to a hugely subsidised Chinese industry.
As a heavily populated small island, the scope for producing sustainable energy without adverse environmental impact is indeed taxing. Every scheme that's proposed should be weighed against what will be lost. Lord Howell's defender lives on the West Sussex coast. I asked him, "I agree about energy supplies, and that our rather feeble efforts at renewables aren't enough. But the question remains: would YOU be happy to see the infrastructure accompanying fracking on the South Downs?" To give him his due, he replied, "I would accept it, if somewhat reluctantly." I wonder if Baron Howell of Guildford, Penton Mewsey, would be so noble... There are tracts of uninhabited desolate arable land and copses just north of the village, I see from Google Earth. I'm sure gas would be much more profitable than wheat and pheasants. And there's lots of it in Hampshire, we're told...