Fracking revenues should be used to re-generate the north
It may not seem obvious to draw a link between the glories of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, and the Daryll K Royal football stadium of the University of Texas at Austin.
Most readers will know King's College; the Austin University stadium holds 100,000 spectators who attend for only 13 games a season, and a project exists to extend it by adding another 30,000 seats. By way of comparison, Old Trafford holds only 75,000. The head coach of the college 'Texas Longhorns' is paid in excess of $5m p.a. Such is the economic power of this academic institution.
King's College chapel expresses the epitome of Gothic perpendicular architecture and man's attempt to express his devotion to the Almighty, albeit laced with significant attempts to fortify the claims to legitimacy of the newly successful Tudor dynasty. The football stadium is a utilitarian erection dedicated to the 21st century obsession with sport. Both have come into existence thanks to two common but powerful human mechanisms - patronage and endowment.
The successful like to make their mark on posterity through association with iconic projects, and that applies as much to San Antonio lawyers or Houston dentists as Tudor monarchs, yet what gives both universities significant advantage over others in the world is the economic power which has grown exponentially thanks to early investment.
The King's favour began the process at Cambridge and the early endowment of assets made the difference. The sublime chapel and the attraction of the most learned of teachers were not funded by student fees. The college was endowed with land, and its assets were augmented by the artistic investment and economic skills of John Maynard Keynes.
Texas University enjoys a different advantage when it comes either to competing on the sporting stage or developing its very considerable research and academic capacity. Its endowment includes significant oil reserves.
Whether one is competing at auction to purchase literary papers, or seeking to attract talented academics and sportsman, rich universities have world-beating capacity. Where one is seeking success, on many level, money talks.
It is in this environment that British universities have to compete, and few deny that Britain's economic future depends upon the quality of its education, especially in the scientific and technical spheres. We have to take our chances as and when they present themselves, and this leads us to the question of the exploitation of shale gas deposits.
The precise distribution of these resources is not yet clear, but it is known that locations include Blackpool and the West Lancashire basin. Already environmental objections are being raised in these areas. A fear of minor earthquakes is advanced.
If these fears and objections are to be overcome, choices will have to be made about how the benefits of such reserves are to be distributed. Doubtless government will currently have its eyes on its share of the profits of any such exploitation.
But imagine if our rulers took a far-sighted approach and, incidentally, addressed a number of current social and political problems.
There is a current controversy over spending up to £50bn on building a high-speed rail link, initially only to the Midlands, but with plans to extend it further north. The proponents tell us that the link itself is regenerative, yet that requires massive public expenditure - upon a somewhat speculative business plan. This is coming under increasing sceptical scrutiny and such caution is far from irrational. Above all, many of those adversely affected by this high-speed bypass from London to Birmingham see no benefit to themselves and their disrupted communities. The benefits seem to accrue mainly to the London elite and those travelling to visit them.
Yet not every futuristic dream proves a failure.
50 years ago the French rural department of the Vienne promoted the development of the Futuroscope which has grown into a successful tripartite economic entity. It is part theme park, part science park and part University. It has proved a major tourist attraction and business regenerator of its region and there is interest in taking this model into the developing world in India and China.
In the English north-west we know that the retail trade is in crisis; the traditional entertainment industry, like other traditional sectors, continues to struggle and, throughout much of the north, the Conservatives cannot convince voters that they have serious interest in helping those beyond their southern heartlands, despite a previous history of strength in the industrial north.
Yet this same area now appears to have a massive energy resource capable of contributing to the energy security of the UK for decades.
Unlike the inhabitants of Haut Poitou, in France, who embraced their innovative regenerator, and, incidentally, are accepting a second TGV rail line without turning a hair, the instant response of many in such areas of potential development is suspicion and hostility. Much of this is based upon a perception that there is nothing in it for them, and that all the profits will head south to London or west to the USA.
If the Government were to use the opportunity afforded by the shale gas reserves wisely, a whole range of their problems in the most depressed regions could be addressed.
Foremost would be a commitment to a significant portion of the taxation windfall being spent in the north. Placing funds in an endowment for a world-class technical university to rival MIT or UT with a science park attached would be a major start. Independent leadership, free of government funding/dependency, direction and interference, is essential.
If the theme-park addition were feasible,with its plethora of jobs for all skill levels, to kick start the region's return to its currently declining role as entertainment tourist destination, so much the better.
The area might begin to appreciate that there is a direct benefit in the acceptance of development and the prospect of tangibly sharing a unique opportunity. The idea is not without precedent. It is a rather more hard-edged, long-term version of Michael Heseltine's flower festival initiatives of the 1980s. Rather more successful has been the Bluewater development in Kent which, after much initial suspicion, has become a matter of considerable local pride.
Even something as inert as the iconic Angel of the North has contributed to a lifted morale in the north-east, so a major commitment to an independent regeneration of the north-west would make a considerable impact. Funds for scholarships and bursaries would add to the prospects of success.
Such a proposal would depend upon government giving up a significant portion of fracking revenue, and stepping away from their perogative of continuing patronage. It would certainly upset a few alma maters as Nobel Prize winners headed north. It is not an easy idea to be accepted, yet we saw North Sea Oil revenue come and go, with much of it used to prop up indolence, complacency and waste. It would be a great legacy if, after the shale gas gave out, we had used its promise to develop a new range of sciences and technologies to continue this country's proud history of innovation in these areas.
It is an idea which is good for regional development, educational independence, future economic security, and the importation of that North American 'can do' attitude, the absence of which is a major hindrance to success.
Above all, there is an element of morality involved. If local communities are to be disturbed, it is only right that a sense of compensatory optimism should be injected. If that is not done, the only voices heard locally will be those of Caroline Lucas and the Balcombe protesters.
We are enjoined by Scripture to love our neighbours as ourselves: if our localities were facing significant change, we would want some sense of participation in the benefit. If not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren.
On a whole range of levels, the advancement of the exploitation of shale gas can be an exciting opportunity, but it needs enthusiastic presentation and, above all, positive leadership. For too long the north has wallowed in grievance and a sense of southern indifference to their problems of transition which flowed from industrial coal, iron and steel decline. Fracking offers a viable source of regenerative finance.
The north needs some innovative thinking from the Tory heartlands which have shared significantly in London's success. It is time for good neighbourliness to use a northern opportunity for northern jobs for northern workers. It will do us all good.
As the Book of Proverbs teaches, 'Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.'
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers