George Osborne’s father-in-law was last night forced to make a public apology after he described the North East as “desolate” and “uninhabited”.
Lord Howell, until recently a Government energy advisor, caused outrage in even the normally more reserved atmosphere of the House of Lords when he said that while he had some sympathy for those opposed to drilling for shale gas – also known as fracking – in “beautiful natural areas”, there are some locations where the practice could be conducted.
He told peers: “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.”
His comments came just a week after the Chancellor made a pitch for northern voters, admitting the economic recovery could not afford to overlook them.
That attempt to revive the Conservative party in the region appeared to have suffered a setback as MPs, tourism groups and residents lined up to attack Lord Howell’s comments.
He made his apology within hours of former Bishop of Durham Justin Welby taking to social media site Twitter to defend the region as “beautiful, rugged and inspiring”.
Last night Lord Howell said: “I apologise for any offence caused. 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. “
Labour peer Lord Beecham, the former leader of Newcastle City Council, was in the House of Lords to hear the comments.
He said: “Neville Chamberlain spoke of pre-war Czechoslovakia as ‘a far away country of which we know nothing’. Lord Howell clearly has a similar view on the North East and his comments once again highlight the Tories problem with the North.”
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Conservative parliamentary candidate for Berwick-upon-Tweed, said she “firmly disagreed” with Lord Howell’s characterisation of the North East.
She added: “I am appalled by the implication of Lord Howells’s comments that the North East has a disposable landscape value.
“The North East has been at the forefront of energy production for our great nation for hundreds of years, but it should be local businesses and residents who determine our region’s 21st Century contribution to the UK’s energy needs.”
Also questioning the Lord was David Skelton, director of Renewal, an independent campaign group aimed at broadening the Tory appeal.
He said: “ As a proud North Easterner, I know that such a description isn't even close to the truth.
“I'd be delighted to give Lord Howell a tour of the North East to show him that it's far from desolate and is, in fact, one of the gems of the nation.
Northumberland’s County Council leader, Labour’s Grant Davey, was another to come out against the comments.
He said: “The noble Lord should stick to what he knows best and we must thank our lucky stars that he’s resigned from his role in the Foreign Office where his diplomatic skills will be sorely missed.”
CRITICS TAKE TO TWITTER
Twitter was as ever the social media forum of choice for those wanting to have their say on the fracking issue yesterday.
Justin Welby @ABCJustin
North East England very beautiful, rugged, welcoming, inspiring, historic, advancing, not “desolate” as was said in House of Lords today.
Len McCluskey @Unite4Len
Lord Howell insults one of the most beautiful parts of the country and exposes this government’s prejudiced view of the north.
Rich Penny @Rich_Penny
Lord Howell says the North East is ‘empty, desolate and full of gas’. Is this not a better description of Lord Howell?
Nick Reeve @nick_reeve
Yes Lord Howell is an idiot but not for that reason. There’s no shale gas in the North East
David Skelton @DJSkelton
The North East isn’t “desolate”. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I’m happy to give Lord Howell a tour if he fancies.
Grahame Morris @grahamemorris
Lord Howell has managed the most egregious insult from a Tory politician since Boris Johnson offended the entire population of Merseyside.
Phil Wilson @PhilWilsonMP
Lord Howell shd apologise 4 saying fracking shld happen in North East so the South’s countryside can be protected. Nimbyism gone mad.