By Mark Wallace
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As a Government energy adviser, a former Cabinet minister and father-in-law to George Osborne, Lord Howell should have known better on a number of fronts than to set himself up for the headlines which are sure to savage him in tomorrow's newspapers.
By declaring that "there are large and uninhabited and desolate areas" in the North East of England where fracking would be appropriate, he should have seen the controversy coming a mile off.
For a start, it's worth noting that the row which has now blown up about exploiting shale gas in the North East of England is slightly misplaced. I have no idea why he chose to discuss the North East, particularly given that most of the UK's shale reserves are estimated to be in the North West and the South East. Perhaps it was an incident of mis-speaking and he named the wrong region, but if so then it could not have been less fortunate.
The choice of words could have been better, too. In the phrase "uninhabited and desolate", it seems perfectly plausible that he intended to describe desolation in the sense of being lonely and sparsely inhabited. Certainly Northumberland has the lowest number of inhabitants per square mile of any English county, so he would be accurate to do so.
Having lived and worked in rural Northumberland, it is fair to say that its isolation and its wilderness are captivatingly beautiful – up on the heather moors near Wooler or out on the army ranges at Otterburn, desolation in the sense that one feels almost completely alone is one of the things to love about the area. It's certainly one aspect I have always adored; being able to walk all day without meeting another soul is all too rare on our busy island.
But Labour were inevitably going to leap on the other, more negative, connotations of the word "desolate". In an article about the North East countryside, the word would be acceptable. In a political environment, with opponents watching your every move, it does not. And with the prevalent assumption that Conservative known nothing about the area London-based media irritatingly insist on calling "The North", it was the oratorical equivalent of stepping on a landmine.
The dispute highlights an ongoing problem for Tories seeking to reach out to voters beyond the South East of England. Offence is more swiftly spotted and more easily taken from someone whom you suspect does not like you, while a long-standing friend can get away with just about anything.
The lengthy process of reconnecting with potential Conservative voters in the North East must bear that in mind, and start with careful, sensible communication. Lord Howell, apparently unwittingly, has given more ammunition to those who would claim the party neither understands nor likes the region. Labourites are already suggesting that he was calling for fracking to take place in non-Tory areas, and that claim is already halfway round the world before the truth that shale drilling started this week in West Sussex has got its trousers on.
The damage to the shale gas cause could be serious, too. He explicitly said that shale gas should be exploited in those "uninhabited and desolate areas" to avoid disruption, environmental contamination and so on elsewhere.
The fact is that shale pads are far less obtrusive than windfarms (not too mention far more worthwhile), Frack Off's scare stories have been repeatedly disproved, and the UK regulatory regime is extremely strict, learning from failings in parts of the US.
Howell's comments imply a shale industry is something you should not want in your area – when in reality it stands to bring cheap energy, revitalised manufacturing and thousands of new engineering jobs.
As a proud Geordie, I'd be delighted to see all of those benefits come to my home. If he had made a better argument in more wisely chosen words, we could be winning votes in the North East by explaining that. Instead, Labour have been given the high ground and shale gas has been dealt an ill-founded blow.