The peer who offended an entire region may have mixed up his North East and North West.
Lord Howell, George Osborne’s father-in-law, caused outrage when he described the North East as “desolate” and “uninhabited” when saying it was better suited to shale gas drilling than other “beautiful” areas.
But in response to a letter from Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, the Conservative peer said: “It was wrong of me to mention a specific region, although actually I had Lancashire not the North East in mind.”
Last night, Mr Lavery said he did not believe the well-educated Lord Howell had made such a mistake, claiming the former minister was simply trying to undo the damage his comments caused.
In his letter, Mr Lavery said the peer’s initial speech appeared to be based on ignorance rather than science.
“Doesn’t the pirate digging for buried treasure normally have a map to indicate it is there?” asked Mr Lavery. “The British Geological Society has completed an estimate of shale gas that stops completely short of the North East.”
Mr Lavery, who sits on the energy select committee, added: “This comment is the latest in a long line of Tory politicians who have given up on the area. Those who believe that the North East really does epitomise the phrase ‘it’s grim up north’.”
He ended by inviting the peer to come see the “ruggedly beautiful” North East.
Lord Howell has told Mr Lavery he will be in the region in October, and would consider a visit to see him. He added that “some 50 years ago” he had written a paper predicting Newcastle could rise to be one of Europe’s most important cities.
The peer received a number of invitations to visit the region, including the chance to stay at a popular holiday park.
A letter signed by Kate Priestley, chairwoman of Northumberland Tourism, said: “On behalf of Northumberland Tourism industry, I would like to extend an invitation to Lord Howell to visit our beautiful county.
“I have no doubt that following his visit, he too would be loathe to recommend any action which would damage this little known jewel in England’s crown.”
Golden Sands Holiday Park, in Cresswell, Northumberland, wrote on Twitter: “We’ve a caravan waiting for you Lord Howell on the Northumberland beauty coast.”
Ronnie Campbell, MP for Blyth Valley, said Lord Howell showed why “doddery Lords who are going gaga should retire“.
He added that he was proud of the North East and its natural beauty.
“Lord Howell makes a good case of why doddery Lords who are going gaga should retire, and the sooner the better,” he said.
“I am proud of the North East – its natural beauty and the generous spirit of its people. Nevertheless, such southern bigotry stretches that generosity to breaking point.”
Soon after the peer’s comments were first reported, Twitter users began to ironically use the hashtag “desolate“ alongside their pictures of North East beauty spots.
These included shots of Bamburgh Castle, Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne and the Newcastle quayside.
Yesterday, Nick Clegg told a Westminster press conference that he “strongly disagreed” with Lord Howell’s comments.
The Deputy Prime Minister said: “Far from the North East being desolate, it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the country, with huge potential.
“The North East is already, and in my view could become, the absolute hub for national, European and worldwide excellence in new green economy.
“You’ve got a fantastic marriage of the natural offshore resources in the North East with the traditional manufacturing heritage.
“The North East has some profound economic and social challenges, but it’s got huge promise as well, which has been recognised by some major international investors.”
‘We’ve no intention of ruining countryside’
The boss of energy company Cuadrilla has said it has “no intention of ruining the countryside and won’t ruin the countryside“ as anti-fracking protesters started a seventh day of action.
Francis Egan insisted hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was safe and would not pose a threat to the public or people’s drinking water.
He said “significant“ amounts of oil and gas could be made available through fracking, but acknowledged his firm’s activities had been delayed as a result of protests against its exploratory drilling activities in West Sussex.
The company’s plan for Balcombe, which is at the centre of high-profile anti-fracking protests, was for exploratory oil drilling and not fracking, he said.
The sensitivity of the subject was highlighted after Lord Howell‘s apology for suggesting the hydraulic fracturing technique could be used in the “desolate“ North East without any impact on the surrounding environment.
Reacting to those comments, Mr Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I live in the North East of the country, and certainly from where I look it’s not desolate.
“Our decisions are made on environmental assessments and going through a fairly-rigorous process with the Environment Agency and the planning authority, and that really dictates where we can and can’t operate.”