Former energy minister Lord Howell (George Osborne’s father-in-law) says it’s fine to frack in ‘empty, desolate’ North-east

Tory grandee says there should be different rules for the South-east

Deputy Political Editor

A senior Conservative peer who is George Osborne's father-in-law provoked anger and surprise today after he suggested "fracking" for shale gas should be limited to the North East of England because it has "large and uninhabited and desolate areas".

The comments by Lord Howell of Guildford will be a serious setback to Tory efforts to reach out to a region that has been broadly hostile to the party over decades, as well as a grave embarrassment to the Chancellor.

One of the few Conservative MPs in the North-east, James Wharton, denounced the remarks as "foolish and ill-informed", while the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, joined the chorus of condemnation.

Lord Howell, a former Energy Secretary, triggered the storm when he intervened in a Lords debate to argue that fracking should not initially be considered for the whole of the United Kingdom.

"In beautiful rural areas there are worries not just about drilling and fracking, which I think are exaggerated, but about trucks, deliveries, roads and disturbance, which are quite justified," he told peers.

"However, there are large, uninhabited and desolate areas, certainly in parts of the North-east, where there is plenty of room for fracking."

As the row raged last night, Lord Howell issued an apology. He said: "I apologise for any offence caused. I certainly did not intend to suggest that the North-east is desolate... 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."

The damage had been done, however, and his past record has not helped the situation. Lord Howell, whose daughter Frances is married to the Chancellor, was made a minister after the general election and stepped down in September. The peer, who remained an energy adviser to the Government until three months ago, represented the Surrey constituency of Guildford as an MP and lives in Hampshire.

His gaffe followed a covert recording last year in which he told undercover Greenpeace activists that his son-in-law was behind moves to curb the spread of wind-farms, and said David Cameron was "not familiar with these issues, does not understand them".

Environmental groups have also raised questions over his extensive portfolio of energy interests, and have suggested he could use family gatherings to lobby the Chancellor. It includes the presidency of the British Institute of Energy Economics, which is sponsored by Shell and BP, and a consultancy with a transport company which is expected to tender when the HS2 rail line is built.

Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth's policy and campaigns director, said of the fracking comments: "This breathtaking ignorance and arrogance is typical of the cosy cabal that surrounds George Osborne."

Leila Deen, Greenpeace UK Energy campaigner, said: "Were Lord Howell or any member of the Government to visit the North-east they would find there are actually people living there, people who don't regard their countryside as a disposable resource."

Tom Greatrex, the shadow Energy minister, said voters should question whether policy was being "drawn up over brandy and cigars rather than on the basis of robust analysis of science and evidence". He said: "It has become increasingly apparent that it is George Osborne who sets the government's energy policy, under the influence of Lord Howell."

The comments were widely condemned across the North-east. Lord Beecham, who is a Labour councillor in Newcastle, said: "Neville Chamberlain spoke of pre-war Czechoslovakia as 'a faraway country of which we know nothing'. Lord Howell clearly has a similar view on the North-east."

Ross Smith, the North-east Chamber of Commerce director of policy, also said: "This is a ridiculous way to describe a region that boasts some of the most beautiful unspoiled countryside in the UK."

Meanwhile Andy Wilson, chief executive of the North York Moors National Park Authority, said: "Half of England's national parks are in the North and the most tranquil areas are in the North of England."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable