There has been a lot of media coverage of the comments of Lord Howell. He was castigated for saying that fracking should be carried out in the “desolate” North-East:
“I mean 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. 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.”
He then apologised for this, clarifying that he actually meant the North-West. Oddly, for a supposed apology, he essentially defended the crux of his comments:
“The general story is right – that we want the derricks for fracking to be far away from residences in unloved places that are not environmentally sensitive. It’s odd that they’ve decided to do this in sensitive places down in Sussex.”
The general reaction was that he was wrong, and that the North-East/West wasn’t desolate at all. I disagree, and think that the outrage here is wrongly directed.
What Lord Howell’s comments really betray, as do many of those in defence of the North, is an incorrect perception that there is only one kind of natural beauty. That poetic staple of England’s ‘green and pleasant land’. In other words, rolling pastures in Sussex are beautiful. Wild, windswept, bleak moors are not.
The word ‘desolate’ means ‘bleak and uninhabited’. That is a fair description for much of the moors, fells, bogs and heaths that characterise not only parts of the North of England, but parts of England and the South-West too. But who says this isn’t beautiful? I’ve spent a lot of time in these habitats, and they have as much beauty, natural wonder, and environmental sensitivity as anywhere in the South-East. The same goes for rugged and mountainous landscapes. As these are not covered in green fields, does Lord Howell think they are also unworthy?
Also, why does ‘uninhabited’ automatically make the landscape less worthy? Lord Howell’s attitude is “out of sight, out of mind”, presumably the government’s preferred principle for fracking. Yet we should fight to preserve our few true areas of wilderness. While less than 10% of the land is built on in the UK, nearly 90% is developed when we consider managed lands such as farms and forests. We need a bit of bleak. We need a bit of emptiness. We need a bit of desolation.
Some of our greatest literature was written by people living around bleak and desolate moors, fens, and heaths. It inspires a particular type of romance in the soul. Just because it’s largely empty isn’t a good reason to slap hydraulic fracturing apparatus on it.
Wild spaces matter, whether Lord Howell thinks they are beautiful or not.