Published:

There is such an air of futility around the fracking debate that it is difficult to understand how a group of Conservative MPs have managed to bestir themselves to call on the Government to lift the ban (sorry, ‘moratorium’) on it.

But then, one could say the same about housing reform. And the two debates have quite a bit of overlap, hinging as they do on our planning system, the myths it rests on, and the tension between the local interests of property owners and the greater interest of the nation as a whole.

Writing on this site, Peter Franklin points out that a strong domestic fracking industry would not, in itself, bring down domestic energy bills, as the output would be sold on the international market. Concentrating the benefits here in Britain would require at least import control, he points out, and “would the free marketeers of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group be up for that?”

It’s a fair question, although the alternative of fixing prices to subsidise nuclear and renewables is scarcely a doctrinaire free-market approach either. Besides which, without import controls the implication is that the UK would have an extremely valuable export resource, which would be no bad thing.

And the international-markets argument cuts both ways. It is meaningless to point out, as Zac Goldsmith does, that we import our energy from an ally, Norway, rather than Russia, when Norway is selling into the same market and the price of Norwegian gas gets pushed up by Moscow’s actions.

His real killer argument, setting aside the stuff about “trucks ferrying toxic chemicals”, which has echoes of anti-nuclear hysteria, is simply that fracking is extremely unpopular. Whether or not it would have any benefits nationally, the downsides would be concentrated. See also why we struggle to expand our airport capacity or build new railways.

Again, the ur-example is surely housing. There is disagreement about whether or not a mass housebuilding programme in the areas of the country that need it (i.e. where demand is greatest) will actually bring down prices.

But really, it shouldn’t matter. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, that’s only because those units have sold at current market prices – meaning we’ve just created a huge stock of wealth, and expanded capacity so people can enjoy more space for the same money. (This latter is the difference between ‘house prices’ and ‘the cost of housing’.)

Yet we don’t. The vast potential gains are too abstract and too widely spread to offset the concentrated costs of telling voters in sought-after areas that towns and villages must grow over time and the urban/rural footprint of post-War Britain is not suitable for modern conditions.

And if we aren’t prepared to fight that fight for such a slam-dunk as a housing boom, is there any prospect of it being done for so contestable a case such as shale gas?

But then, I would be the last person to suggest that we actually abandon the fight for planning reform. Resignation in the face of powerful vested interests never got anything done.

At the very least, a strategic argument on the virtues of an on-shore fracking industry might help to focus minds on issues such as security of supply, and avoid the abject short-termism which led to the shuttering of the UK’s offshore gas reserve storage site in 2017.