Lancashire has had a tough few years economically and may well become the new battleground over fracking. But Prime Minister David Cameron tells DAVID NOWELL that the shale gas industry could bring a jobs boom
Give the shale gas industry a chance – that’s the message today from David Cameron.
The Prime Minister was speaking days after Cuadrilla announced plans to apply to drill for shale gas at two sites in Lancashire.
Fracking is an emotive subject, with protesters claiming it is linked to earth tremors and environmental pollution.
The ultimate decision whether it goes ahead will rest with county councillors – and protesters and opponents of fracking are gearing up to do everything they can to stop drilling from going ahead.
The Prime Minister took time out from his hectic schedule, including chairing emergency meetings about the floods crisis in the south west, to give an interview.
Mr Cameron has already publicly endorsed shale gas exploration, and reinforced this position in an interview with the Evening Post.
He said: “It shouldn’t happen without stringent environmental guarantees, but there are big opportunities. Let’s give them the opportunity. More should be done to reassure people about environmental concerns, but potentially it could bring more investment and more jobs into Lancashire.”
Each local community where drilling wells are sited will receive £100,000 per well. And local authorities have been told they can keep 100 per cent of all business rates from shale gas drilling operations.
Some estimates say the shale gas industry could create over 70,000 jobs in the UK – although the industry stresses that all depends on the amount of gas that is extracted.
The Lancashire public is sceptical about the economic benefits, and the new Cuadrilla applications just happen to fall in the true blue Tory heartland of the Fylde.
Isn’t Mr Cameron worried about a political backlash if the plans go ahead and there is no jobs boom?
He said: “Nothing will do more for this industry than seeing those sites up and running safely and producing gas. The expectation is often far worse than the reality.
“There are some in the green movement who cannot stand the idea of any fuel that has an element of carbon in it. This is potentially a low cost fuel that will bring jobs to Britain.
“In Lincolnshire (where there is already drilling for oil) they are happy and they see the benefits that it could bring.
“People worry about the movement of lorries and such, but the truth is that there isn’t a lot of road movement and there isn’t any negative environmental impact. I think once people see these sites up and running and bringing in the benefits, they will be happy.”
And what happens when – almost certainly – anti-fracking activists turn Lancashire into the new Balcombe, where the cost of the policing the protestors to ran to around £4m? That cost has to be borne by local taxpayers unless the Government feels it should help out.
The Sussex police and crime commissioner has applied to the Home Office for the costs to be reimbursed to avoid being saddled with a crippling bill.
Mr Cameron said: “I hope that people will allow the planning system to run its course properly. If there are policing costs there is a proper system in place. There is a way to appeal to the Home Office, but are far as Lancashire is concerned we haven’t reach that point yet.”
Mr Cameron also turned to the economy and suggestions the north-south divide was becoming wider during the recession.
The unemployment rate in the North West is now 7.9 per cent – higher than the national average of 7.1 per cent. Lancashire County Council and many other local councils have had to make hefty cuts because of Government austerity measures.
Despite signs the economy is recovering, in Lancashire there are still jobs regularly being lost in the public and private sector.
Mr Cameron said the number of people in work in the North West was rising and there were fewer people claiming jobseekers’ allowance.
He did not accept there was a massive north-south divide and said Lancashire County Council had considerable cash reserves.
“The unemployment rate in the North West is lower than London,” he said.
“There are still challenges, but there are some good signs.
“There are examples of industry expanding. Of course every council is facing challenges, but we are not asking them to do anything impossible,” he added.
With Downing Street aides making it clear our time was up, he said goodbye and went off on the next leg of his public and media appointments.
But one thing is for certain. He will be back in Lancashire next year, when there is the little matter of a general election.