Fracking: A sign of Tory contempt for the North?

THE Tories want fracking in the North because they think we’re a soft touch . Despite serious concerns about fracking, the Government last month awarded private companies 27 controversial fracking exploration licences. Given that not one of the fracking licences covers anywhere south of Leicester, alarm bells should be ringing here.

In total, these licences cover over 1,000 square miles of land in the North and North Midlands, including one block which covers a third of my Barnsley East constituency. Ministers claim we need a fracking blitz in the UK to boost the economy. But there are huge local concerns and the evidence on the potential economic benefits is weak.

An internal report published in July by Defra, entitled Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts, found that fracking is likely to deter tourism and wipe up to seven per cent off local house prices within a mile of an extraction site.

According to the study, which the Government tried to keep a secret, houses within five miles of shale gas sites could also face higher insurance premiums due to the risk of explosions. Residents’ health could suffer due to noise and pollution. And it warned that local people would miss out on most of the skilled jobs the industry could create.

The Government needs to be honest with people and weigh any potential economic benefits against the costs to the local economy and to local residents.

But what of the potential safety and environmental impacts? It is widely acknowledged that fracking trials in Lancashire in 2011 triggered earth tremors of up to magnitude-2.3 on the Richter scale. On top of this, fracking has been linked to local water contamination. There have also been reports in the US of methane leaks into the atmosphere due to fracking. Methane is a greenhouse gas and exacerbates climate change. The gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over short periods and 30 times more potent over the long-term.

Given all this uncertainty, the Government should call a halt to fracking before irreversible damage is done . But instead of calling a fracking moratorium, gathering clearer evidence on the impacts of fracking and listening to the genuine concerns from people across Yorkshire, the Government is now trying to stifle any local opposition.

Recent changes mean our local councils could be stripped of their decision-making power on fracking applications. The announcement about the fracking licences was also sneaked out in the middle of August when Parliament was not sitting.

And why does the Government seem to be targeting some parts of the country for fracking so aggressively, like here in Yorkshire? Last year the Tory grandee and George Osborne’s father-in-law, Lord Howell, said:“Every time Ministers claim fracking must start everywhere, and not just in selected remote (derelict) areas, they lose thousands of Tory votes. In the North East, the North West and all the places where the Industrial Revolution has left the worst historical scars they do have just such areas, they have the gas and they have the local wish.”

These remarks provide an insight into what some top Tories think the north of England is like – Lord Howell was Energy Secretary and then Transport Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s first government. They imply we’re some sort of desperate post-industrial wasteland whose residents would be all too grateful for fracking.

My strong contention is that the siting for potential fracking has everything to do with politics and little to do with economics. You can’t build so much as a shed in the south of England without provoking the rage of nimby Conservative councils or MPs. Yet Tory ministers are content to give the green light to massive fracking in the North.

Before the election, Conservative Ministers were all over the North like a cheap coat. Now that the election is over and the next one a distant five years away, the great Tory charm offensive in the North of England is well and truly over.

The Government cancelled our rail electrification plans and figures released this week by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute revealed that whereas infrastructure investment in London is about £5,305 for each person, it is £851 per head in Yorkshire and Humberside. The Tories are hell-bent on fracking the North because they think we’re a soft touch. It’s up to us to show them that we’re not.

• Michael Dugher is MP for Barnsley East and the Shadow Transport Secretary.