THE first Liberal Democrat Agriculture Minister in almost a century, David Heath appears to be a man on a mission, and determined to make up for lost time. He heads to Yorkshire to open Nestle’s latest research plant before awarding a £500,000 grant that will enable Chippindale’s egg processing facility near Knaresborough to expand.
In an interview for this newspaper, he has recognised the importance of the wider rural economy as a driver for growth – and that the food industry can become an even more significant player in Britain’s revival with the right support structures.
Mr Heath’s intervention chimes with the coalition’s most recent mood music, and a growing appreciation that rural Britain has many social and economic challenges that have been unduly neglected by successive governments. The test, however, will be whether the Minister can maintain this forward momentum at a time when some are questioning the effectiveness of the Government on two fronts – its slow response to the disease that is forcing thousands of ash trees to be felled and concerns that the new supermarket ombudsman will have insufficient clout to defend the financial interests of cash-strapped farmers.
That said, it should be to agriculture’s wider beneft that Mr Heath’s constituency in Somerset is a predominantly rural one which has the same challenges that are confronting many of North Yorkshire’s more isolated communities. His challenge now is to ensure that growing tensions between the Tories and Lib Dems, tensions that will only grow as the next election approaches, do not hinder attempts to kickstart the rural economy. For, as Mr Heath conceded, a relatively small amount of public money can make a lasting difference – a vision that must now be nurtured.