Good day to bury bad news: Survey reveals South Downs is ripe for fracking and Government report puts major construction projects on 'red alert'

Billions of barrels of oil discovered beneath Tory heartlands as doubts are raised over HS2 and Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier's future
  • @andymcsmith

Almost 13 years after a Labour spin doctor was caught out sending a cynical email about it being “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury” the government appears to be at it again.

As the attention of political journalists was focused on the election results, two major reports were published in Whitehall, which would have risked setting off a storm of controversy on a quieter day.

A British Geological Survey study of the South of England from Wiltshire to Kent, taking in the South Downs National Park, has been published today, showing that beneath the ground there is billions of barrels of shale oil, which can be extracted by the process known as fracking.

While the implications for the UK’s future energy needs are good, the impact on people living in the south is likely to set off furious protests. Lord Howell, a former Conservative Energy Secretary, recently urged the Government to give up any idea of fracking in the south, where it could cost the Conservative Party thousands of votes, and confine the process to the Labour voting north.

The Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was arrested last August during an anti-fracking protest in Balcombe, West Sussex, said: “It does look as if this is quite a good time for the Government to smuggle out this announcement. People in the south of England are going to be deeply concerned about the implications of the report.

“I think Lord Howell gave the game away. He recognised how much hostility there will be to churning up huge swathes of the south.”

The Government also chose today to publish its report on major construction projects, which set out in frank detail how many are classed as ‘red’ or ‘amber red.’ The report warns “there will be instances where a red rating signifies that a project is unachievable within reasonable timescales and to a reasonable budget without urgent remedial action. Red and red/amber ratings signal to ministers and officials that action is required.”

The highly publicised HS2 project to build a new high speed rail link between London and Birmingham is classed as ‘amber/red’ – though the fact that the necessary legislation is through Parliament makes it possible the prospects of success will improve in future.

But the £6.2 billion project to construct a new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, is on a ‘red’ warning. The Government is also struggling with yet another project to introduce a new IT system, which is proving slower and more expensive than they expected. This is the new system for the National Crime Agency, which was ‘amber/red’ this time last year has since been downgraded to ‘red’, though the Major Projects Authority, which makes the classifications, believes the problems will be solved in the end and the system will be a big moneys saver once it is up and running.

Jo Moore, a Labour special adviser, was found to have sent an email to a civil servant on 11 September 2001, just after the terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers, suggesting that it would be a good day to slip out an embarrassing announcement about expenses claimed by Labour councillors.