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Neither fracking nor anything else should divide us further

Lindisfarne Castle, Northumbria - one of many beautiful places in the “desolate” North East. Owen Humphreys/PA

The recent comments from former government energy policy advisor David Howell, Lord Howell of Guildford, on the suitability of different parts of England for fracking amply demonstrate how off-the-cuff remarks can rebound. But more disturbingly they also indicate values and attitudes which are perhaps more detrimental to the English landscape than fracking itself.

Lord Howell, Chancellor George Osborne’s father-in-law, said that fracking should be focused on the North East because it contained large uninhabited areas which were not environmentally sensitive. He also questioned the wisdom of test drilling in “sensitive places down in Sussex.” The implication was that Sussex contained “beautiful natural areas” while the North East did not. Challenged by people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury (formerly Bishop of Durham), he countered by stating he’d meant the North West of England. Presumably he thought of the experimental drilling being carried out in Lancashire, or perhaps merely conjured up images of the area’s industrial past, but in any case managed to offend a new group of people.

It is a valid question whether, in a small country like Britain, there are any areas at all that are not environmentally sensitive. The barest glance at a map would show Lord Howell how much of Northern England is designated as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Nature Reserves. Part of the problem is the widespread but mistaken notion that parts of our countryside are still “pristine” and “unspoilt” and that areas not actually built on are unaffected by development.

In fact no part of England has remained unmodified by human activity in the 10,000 years since the last ice age. Traces of human activity are sometimes very obvious, sometimes less so. Remains of stone circles and henges, built by some of our earliest settlers, are evident in the landscape if not always easy to interpret. Other instances of human impact on the landscape are less obvious. Heather moorland is as natural as a field of cereals, maintained artificially by the grazing of cattle and sheep at particular densities. Flower-rich hay meadows and downland pastures represent other subtle landscapes created by a combination of humans and nature. The moorlands of northern England could change their appearance very rapidly if the grazing regimes which maintain them were altered, as occurred after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak a few years ago. Areas with comparatively low population density are neither uninhabited or unused.

The eye of the beholder

Our view regarding what constitutes attractive scenery in this country has changed markedly over the centuries. In the 1720s Daniel Defoe, riding through England gathering materials for his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, described the Peak District as “a houling wilderness” and Westmorland as the most “wild, barren and frightful” county he had seen anywhere in Britain. Mountain and moorland scenery was unattractive to townies like Defoe (a butcher’s son from Stoke Newington, London) who much preferred rolling, fertile countryside. The people who lived in these wilderness areas doubtless had different views but nobody bothered to ask them.

The Picturesque movement of the late eighteenth century and the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth, prompted in part by the damage inflicted by the Industrial Revolution, such as the coalfields of northern England, sought to paint upland areas as attractive. In 1810, at Dove Cottage overlooking Grasmere, William Wordsworth wrote in what would become his famous Guide to the Lakes, that he considered the Lake District (and by implication other upland areas of Britain) as “a sort of national property” in which everyone, whether they lived in the area or not, had an interest. And so the conservation movement was born.

There are clear hints in Lord Howell’s remarks of that persistent, insidious concept of the North/South divide. In the 1960s geographers produced maps that reflected people’s perception of the country, rather than what was actually there. To Londoners, the South East was seen as far bigger than it really was. Roads petered out somewhere in the Midlands and beyond Carlisle dog sleds were the principal form of transport. The North/South divide already existed in Medieval times and has continued to exert a pervasive influence at the present day. This can be seen in the level of financial inducements that are frequently offered to employees by companies seeking to relocate in the North.

The real glory of the English landscape is its tremendous variety and complexity within such a small area. We need to cherish all of it and celebrate its distinctiveness, its past, its character and to protect this for future generations rather than seeking to exploit it for short-term gain. All decisions about developing any part of Britain should take account of a wide range of factors. No part of the country, let alone the welfare of those living there, can be simply written off or sacrificed.

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