Harrogate Spring Water hits back: 'Being a good neighbour is in our DNA'

Harrogate Spring Water's MD James Cain with part of the company's masterplan behind him. (1703061AM2)
Harrogate Spring Water's MD James Cain with part of the company's masterplan behind him. (1703061AM2)

On arriving at the reception desk at Harrogate Spring Water’s swish bottling plant the first thing a visitor notices is a pen and ink old map of Harrogate from the height of its spa days.

It’s symbolic of the role this independent family firm sees itself playing in the life and history of Harrogate.

Harrogate Spring Water: Inside one of the greenest and most efficient bottling plants in Europe. (1703061AM1)

Harrogate Spring Water: Inside one of the greenest and most efficient bottling plants in Europe. (1703061AM1)

Despite its fantastic success story in recent years and its undoubtedly strong environmental credentials, this flagship company has found itself facing public fears over the effect of its plans to expand its bottling plant on Harlow Moor Road on trees and plantlife near the town’s cherished Pinewoods.

James Cain, its passionate, fortysomething managing director is concerned about the unexpected criticism surrounding the company’s multi-million pound investment plans - and the need to eat into nearby trees at Rotary Wood.

But not as concerned as he is over the trees themselves.

During a behind-the-scenes tour at this leafy location, it’s obvious the company’s MD not only understands the impact on the area’s green spaces of the planned expansion, he intends to do something about it.

James said: “We’re not weeding the area. The aim of our plans is to end up with more trees in total than currently and to give the public greater access to the woodlands by creating new walkways.

“We’re not out-of-towners. We live and breathe it every day. We walk our dogs and enjoy Harrogate’s green spaces ourselves. We don’t want to create a blot on the landscape.”

James first joined the business after a background in retail logistics four years after his father Tony first launched the spa water brand in 2002 in a purpose-built, ultra-modern plant.

FLYING THE FLAG FOR HARROGATE ROUND THE WORLD

The figures say it all, since 2002 Harrogate Spring Water achieved annual growth of more than 30 per cent.

Progress has been so rapid, in fact, the firm is currently expanding three times faster than the market for naturally-sourced water.

Success has been built partly on brilliant branding which has capitalised on Harrogate’s 400-year history of water production.

So effective has the strategy been that Harrogate Spring Water now acts as an unofficial advert for the town which spawned it both in Britain and internationally.

James himself admits he still gets a ‘buzz’ when he’s travelling by train or plane and discovers the water on offer is from Harrogate.

He said: “I’m proud of what we do. We’re really passionate about the brand. There’s been an awful lot of hard work behind the scenes, especially in the early years.

“Since our launch we’ve waved the flag for Harrogate and its spa heritage wherever we have gone.”

The decision to expand the plant has involved a lot of thought for the company.

It decided to delay its planning application to Harrogate Borough Council so James could attend today’s annual general meeting of Pinewoods Conservation Group.

But it’s a tough world out there and this sharp independent is up against the big boys, Nestle and other multi-nationals of that ilk.

For Harrogate Spring Water, doubling the size of its bottling plant is a matter of necessity rather than choice.

James said: “This is about protecting the future of our business and creating new jobs. It’s a competitive sector.

“We have to tough it out the whole time and keep up with consumer demand or lose out.

“We need more space for processing equipment. By law we have to bottle the water at source and our source is here.”

GREEN AND EFFICIENT

A quick look round Harrogate Spring Water’s ultra-clean, ultra-civilised and ultra-modern plant confirms this is a business which leaves nothing to chance.

Despite its close relationship to Harrogate’s history, it’s embraced technological innovation from the very beginning; James has just returned from a R&D trip to Germany the day I meet him.

The cause is not simply economic efficiency but environmental concern.

The bottling line visible to visitors through the long windows on one side is one of the most environmentally efficient production lines in the whole of the UK, if not Europe.

And, when it comes to transport, that’s where James’s expertise in logistics really comes into play.

James said: “Everything we produce here gets efficiently transported to Leeds where it’s turned into the finished product and distributed from there.

“It would have been sacrilege to have created warehouse space where we are in Harrogate.

“We pride ourselves in having no empty vehicles on the road. It’s in our DNA to behave as good neighbours and that means being responsible in terms of traffic movement.”

As part of its community ethos, Harrogate Spring Water has given away one million bottles to local and Yorkshire charities to date, as well as its various sponsorship commitments, including supporting schools cricket in North Yorkshire.

It’s Thirsty Planet brand launched in 2007 has so far raised £2 million for Pump Aid which provides water pumps for impoverished parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

James sees no ‘us versus them’ in the current debate over the future of the beautiful wooded area which Harrogate Spring Water is located in.

The company itself holds corporate membership of Pinewood’s Conservation Group, one of the main groups which have raised concerns along with Harrogate Rotary Club whose members planted some of the trees.

BEING GOOD NEIGHBOURS

If Harrogate Spring Water isn’t a ‘good neighbour’, it’s certainly giving a good impression of one.

It has a good relationship with Harrogate Borough Council and RHS Harlow Carr Gardens just down the road.

James said: “We don’t mind criticism when it’s based on facts. The field which people are talking about isn’t actually in the Pinewoods itself.

“Fifty per cent of our expansion in terms of the land will be gifted towards woodland and green space.

“It’s not a token gesture, it’s a significant part of our thinking.

“All the trees at Rotary Wood which have matured since being planted are taken down they will be transplanted to a new site in the area.

“Any new ones will be native varieties. We’ve taken professional advice.”

Before I end my visit to Harrogate Spring Water, James shows me a photograph taken last week of a day out by 28 staff members.

Dressed in bright yellow, hi-vis jackets, the team are pictured smiling after picking up litter in the Pinewoods and Valley Gardens as part of the company’s commitment to Great British Spring Clean and Keep Britain Tidy.

HARROGATE SPRING WATER EXPANSION PLANS: FACTFILE

Harrogate Spring Water is looking to expand by up to 5,500sqm to ensure its water can be bottled at source at its plant located within Harrogate’s Conservation Area close to the much-loved Valley Gardens, Pinewoods, and residential areas.

It held a public consultation about its planning application at its bottling plant on January 18 to explain its plans.

Rotary Club of Harrogate came out in February against Harrogate Spring Water’s plans to extend their factory onto the site of the trees at Millennium or Rotary Wood, which was created in 2005 by Harrogate Rotary as part of their centenary celebrations. The plans, they said, would “ruin the woodland” and set a “dangerous precedent.”

Pinewoods Conservation Group is currently in discussions with Harrogate Spring Water to help minimise the impact on the area.

Both Harrogate Spring Water and Harrogate Borough Council are to attend today’s AGM of Pinewoods Conservation Group at the Green Hut on Harlow Avenue to make presentations.

If the plans get the go-ahead from Harrogate Borough Council eventually, work is expected to begin in early 2019.