Lord Howell Apologises Over Fracking Call In 'Desolate' North East

A Tory peer has apologised for "any offence caused" by his comments about fracking, insisting he did not believe the north east was "desolate".

Lord Howell drew drawn widespread condemnation after suggesting fracking should be carried out in the North East of England because it has vast "desolate areas".

The peer, who lives in the south of England, provoked gasps of shock in the House of Lords when he said the gas production method could be safely carried out in the North East without environmental impact.

"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 told peers.

"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."

Lord Howell, 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."

The Tory peer said distinctions should be made between areas suitable for fracking rather than deciding to "lump them all together". He was a Foreign Office minister from 2010 to 2012 and energy secretary under Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1981.

James Wharton, Tory MP for Stockton South, struck back at Lord Howell's "foolish and ill-informed" comments.

However, Wharton endorsed his call for fracking to spread to the area, saying: "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."

Several North Eastern Labour MPs also expressed their shock at Lord Howell's comments.

Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, told the Huffington Post UK: "It is a revealing insight into the attitudes this Government of posh boys from the home counties try to hide – the north east is a long, long way away and not near where our kind of people live.

"The use of the word ‘residence’ gives it away. Personally I live in a flat, not a ‘residence’ and it is in Newcastle, the heart of a vibrant, diverse city and near some of the most beautiful and precious countryside in the country."

Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham said: "The ignorance of some of our Government never ceases to amaze me. I am appalled at his attitude – what he has had to say is deeply offensive and he should apologise to the people of my Region. Clearly Lord Howell has either never been in the North East or he has the kind of memories that can only be bound up in some kind of fantasy land."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby also criticised 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."

Anti-fracking supporter Bianca Jagger has disputed the reported benefits that fracking 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."