Welcome to fracking Blackpool: the gas rush

Apr 17, 2012
Colin Brown

Why fracking could prove a goldmine for the town deserted by the political parties

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SET ASIDE the scare stories about earth tremors and gas coming out of the bath taps. Blackpool, for years the tourist backside of Britain, now stands on the threshold of a becoming a boom town after government experts gave the go-ahead to resume ‘fracking' - the controversial technique for extracting gas from beneath the earth.

The volume of gas that could be released as a result of fracking is so huge it is being compared by industry experts with the oil bonanza produced by the North Sea. It could lead to Britain's gas prices tumbling and provide the country with cheap energy for years to come.

According to a recent Guardian report, one industry estimate suggests that shale gas reserves in Lancashire alone could deliver £6bn of gas a year for the next three decades.

For the Victorian resort town of Blackpool, the uplift in its fortunes could be as spectacular as a push-up bra, and as exhilarating as the lift to the top of the famous tower.

Having been brought up in the rather more snooty resort of Southport, I know that Blackpool on the Fylde Coast has always been looked down upon by its neighbours as a brassy, busty show-off with bad taste - an embarrassing hang-over from a long-lost age, like a seaside postcard by Donald McGill or a kiss-me-quick hat.

The tide went out on Blackpool in the Swinging Sixties. In the 1930s, the town was the resort of choice for the millworkers of Lancashire who would flock to there in Wakes Week to ride the donkeys, go on the big dipper and catch George Formby at the tea-time show.

Then came package holidays on the Continent and most British holidaymakers turned their backs on Blackpool. The town went downhill, and downmarket. The one bright spot in the calendar for the town's restaurants and hotels was the annual party conference season at the Winter Gardens. But even the political parties stopped going.

Blackpool tried to find new business by making itself the Hen Party Capital of Britain. It wasn't pretty. Then there was a hope that the town would get permission to open a string of super casinos, to rival Las Vegas or Atlantic City. But Gordon Brown cocked it up. He gave a commission the job of deciding where the new casinos should be based and the clowns picked Manchester, which was unacceptable to everyone, and the idea was killed off.

Many restaurants and hotels have bitten the dust. A cursory glance at the estate agents' sites shows you can snap up a 12-bed hotel in the centre of Blackpool for £229,000, or a block of six self-contained holiday apartments for £224,000 close to the prestigious Queens Promenade.

If I had a spare half a million pounds in my back pocket, I might be inclined to invest it in a hotel chain in Blackpool and wait for the gold rush to start. If fracking has any of the impact that oil had on North Sea ports such as Dundee, there will be an influx of gas and oil engineers into the Fylde Coast all looking for beds, and entertainment at night.

The company responsible for Britain's only active shale gas drilling, Cuadrilla Resources, recently claimed a gigantic 200 trillion cubic-foot find at its site near Blackpool. The Daily Telegraph reported this would be the biggest discovery in Europe if confirmed.

The downside of course could be the environmental impact. In America, where fracking has gone well beyond the experimental stage, the technique for blasting water at high rates to smash gas-bearing shale rocks has been linked with earth tremors and has raised fears about pollution of the water table. There has also been highly-publicised film of flames shooting out of kitchen taps from escaping gas in Pennsylvania.

In Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas there have been reports of tap water turning grey; of bathwater causing skin rashes; of farm animals sickening and dying; and of methane – the principal component of natural gas – bubbling through water supplies and occasionally exploding.

Responsibility for these incidents is invariably disowned by the companies doing the fracking.

The concerns about the water table cannot be dismissed lightly, but I suspect they won't cause too many sleepless nights in Blackpool, which has struggled for years to stop raw sewage being dumped into the sea from other polluters in Lancashire.

There was another spot of good news for Blackpool tucked away in George Osborne's much-maligned Budget that has gone largely unnoticed – there is going to be an upgrade of the rail link to Blackpool from the west coast mainline from London to Glasgow.

The lack of a decent train service to Blackpool from London was one of the reasons the big political parties turned their back on the resort. It could come just in time for the trainloads of fracking engineers, and the hangers-on who may be heading for Blackpool in the future, if the gas rush happens for real.

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