It’s still too early to say whether shale gas has the potential to reinvigorate the UK economy, in the same way as North Sea oil did in the 1980s, and it perhaps already is transforming the much larger US economy. But we are not going to find out until more testing and drilling is allowed, so it is vital that subject to obvious safeguards, the barriers to development should be dismantled as quickly as possible.

As ministers are only too aware, the economy needs some sort of boost, and I’m not thinking here about renewed calls for some sort of debt-fuelled fiscal stimulus. In itself, austerity is not the problem in Western economies; rather, it is lack of competitiveness, and in the eurozone’s case, an artificial construct which has removed the natural market remedy of currency realignment.

With still the highest deficit in Europe, the UK economy needs an even bigger one like a hole in the head. What it does need to get growth going again is supply side and structural reform; removing obstacles to exploration and development of new sources of gas supply must be a key part of any such agenda.

The wheels of government grind exceedingly slow, but thankfully, there have been unmistakable signs of movement over the past year. The moratorium on exploration has been lifted, fears that fracking plays a significant role in earthquakes have been dismissed, the previously sceptical Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee has recommended that more should be done to encourage shale, and the Chancellor, George Osborne, has promised to bring forward proposals that allow local communities some kind of share in the benefits of development by the summer.

In Britain, mineral rights are vested with the Crown, not as in the US with the property owner. This plainly makes opposition in Britain much more likely than the US, and therefore acts as a significant barrier to development. Some more generalised way of defusing local opposition, beyond the normal enticement of access and usage charges for land owners, needs to be found.

North Sea oil’s potential wasn’t fully appreciated until some distance into its exploration and development. There must at least be the possibility that the same is true of shale. What we now know is that there is lots of it. A yet to be published study by the British Geological Survey has found reserves to be much bigger than previously thought. But as Lord Browne, chairman of the UK shale pioneer Cuadrilla points out, what we don’t yet know is quite how commercial it might be. It is vital that we find out.

In the US, the impact of the shale gas revolution has already been profound, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, significantly adding to GDP and contributing tens of billions of dollars in federal, state and local taxes. The wider implications for competitiveness and energy security have been more dramatic still.

Over the past two years, gas prices have tumbled from $12 (£7.74) per million British thermal units to just $3, giving Americans some of the lowest energy costs in the world and the prospect of renewed energy self-sufficiency within a few years. If the UK could access just some of these rewards, it would greatly ease the nation’s economic plight. The balance of payments problem would disappear and competitiveness would be significantly enhanced.

Less clear is whether it would reverse the long decline in British manufacturing industry. In the US, there is some evidence of manufacturing jobs coming back, particularly in energy intensive industries such as petro-chemicals – or “on-shoring” of jobs previously moved overseas. But it is early days yet, and for the moment it is hard to discern any more than a slight pause in the de-industrialisation process.

Britain has been very much in the vanguard of this long-term trend, with manufacturing shrinking by more than others from 29pc of GDP in 1970 to just 11pc in 2011, according to data compiled by the United Nations.

Yet the trend is pretty much universal across all advanced economies, with the US declining from 24pc in 1970 to 13pc in 2011, and even Germany, Europe’s industrial engine room, falling from 33pc to 23pc.

The fall-off in France has been particularly precipitous in recent years, with manufacturing now accounting for just 10.5pc of output. In a characteristically chauvinist outburst a few years back, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, angrily insisted that “the UK has no industry any longer”. He should first have looked at his own data.

In France’s case, the wounds are nothing to do with energy costs, but are largely self-inflicted. France has suffered a shocking loss of competitiveness in recent years, making it a likely focus for the next phase in the eurozone crisis.

Or, as the International Monetary Fund said in its last assessment: “With rates of taxation [and government spending] already among the highest in Europe, the ratcheting up of the tax burden in 2012-13 further undermines incentives to work and invest, and places France at an additional competitive disadvantage relative to its peers.”

But even France cannot be considered an exception. The big picture is that the age of the machine is fast giving way to an era of services and information technology. Despite the growth of new industrial powerhouses such as China, manufacturing’s share of the world economy since 1970 has shrunk from nearly 27pc to just 16pc today.

This shouldn’t really be seen as a decline. In fact other parts of the economy have simply outgrown the industrial bit. Our money is spent less on manufactured goods and more on other things. The price of goods has fallen dramatically relative to that of services. So the idea that we don’t make anything anymore, leaving others to make stuff for us, is not just unduly simplistic but it actually shouldn’t matter very much provided people buy our services instead.

That’s not to say that older, resource intensive industries are no longer important, or that policy makers shouldn’t focus on encouraging them. Britain, the US and France have allowed their traded goods sectors to shrink too far and as result ended up in hock to big surplus countries such as Germany and China.

Yet even if the cheap energy potential of shale does succeed in galvanising a manufacturing revival, it’s unlikely to produce a load more manufacturing jobs.

Today’s high end manufacturing tends to be substantially automated and therefore capital, rather than labour, intensive.

Shale should instead be simply regarded as a good example of the kind of industry where – with the requisite degree of deregulation – the power of enterprise and capital investment can quite easily be unleashed, creating a virtuous circle of growth.

What’s more, it doesn’t require a penny’s worth of public money.