Is this an end to troubled waters as Harrogate Spring Water looks to build bridges with campaigners?

The new managing director of Harrogate Spring Water says the company has learned the lessons of recent battles over its plans to expand and it is keen to listen to the community before taking the next step.

By Graham Chalmers
Friday, 3rd June 2022, 5:16 pm
Updated Friday, 3rd June 2022, 5:19 pm

Talking within the headquarters of the leading water brand at Harlow Hill just yards from the trees of Rotary Wood - which lie at the heart of the five-year saga - Richard Hall said the interests of Harrogate Spring Water were synonymous with the town itself.

“The key point for us as a company is that we are based on the heritage of Harrogate and its spa history,” said Mr Hall. “If you are talking about Harrogate Spring Water, you are talking about Harrogate.

“We have learned from the rejection of our previous plans and we will listen.

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Richard Hall, the new MD of Harrogate Spring Water hopes for a better future relationship with the town's residents.

“Our reputation in Harrogate matters to us.”

One month into a role he took on after long-time Harrogate Spring Water boss James Cain stepped down following the firm’s takeover by French-owned multinational food-products corporation Danone, Mr Hall announced the water brand’s intention to revert to a smaller version of its expansion plans which potentially threaten the future of Rotary Wood.

Proceeding with the original 2017 plan, he said, would reduce the size and impact of the extension compared with the 2019 proposals which were rejected by Harrogate Borough Council in January 2021 after a heated debate which went national when TV presenter Julia Bradbury joined the voices of opposition.

“We have thought long and hard about the concerns raised about the 2019 plan. We have taken on board the feedback from the community and we are now looking to move forward,” said Mr Hall, 54, who hails from Oxfordshire and boasts a CV of top jobs in the Danone empire since he joined the firm in 2001 - including his previous role of Vice President for Danone’s UK & Ireland business.

“We are confident the 2017 plans are sufficient to enable us to grow the business but we want take the community with us.

“Our water brand is special but so is Harrogate.”

This week also saw Harrogate Spring Water announce its intention to launch new public consultation in the run-up to putting together a “Reserved Matters” application which will detail how the new expanded bottling plant will look and how the surrounding area will be landscaped.

Comments can already be posted online and a public event will be held in Harrogate later this month with company members there to answer questions.

“We will listen first before putting in our final planning application later this year,” said Mr Hall.

“By reverting to the original plan and consulting on what the final development could look like, we are going back to previously agreed plans and taking what we believe is a gold standard approach on responsible development.”

It wasn’t only councillors who took against Harrogate Spring Water’s last set of plans.

A range of local charities, community groups, greens and residents associations - most notably Pinewoods Conservation Group - expressed alarm at the likely impact on trees, wildlife and biodiversity.

In particular, campaigners argued not only was the planned expansion too impactful on Rotary Wood, the mitigation plans for the loss of trees were inadequate and located too far from the site.

The new MD of Harrogate Spring Water says he understands those complaints and is open to acting on them.

“We are looking into ways to achieve net biodiversity gain for the site and pursuing proposals to carry out a compensatory tree planting scheme,” said Mr Hall.

“There is the potential to make Rotary Wood more accessible to the public, create more shared areas or to leave the land as it is.

“But all this will be decided after listening to the community in the consultation.”

Should the 2017 plans gets the final go-ahead from councillors, Harrogate Spring Water says the expansion will create more than 30 new jobs for local people, in addition to the, at least, 25 involved in the construction process.

Some have protested in the past that Harrogate Spring Water’s expansion isn’t necessary in the current economic climate and that Danone are part of the plastic problem rather than a planet solution.

Mr Hall points to Danone’s record on both business and environmental matters.

“Harrogate Spring Water is a fantastic brand but how we expand the brand is important to us and it’s also important to Danone,” he said. “We are working on new plans at the moment to make more of the materials we use in our bottled water recyclable.

“The market is still growing - despite the impact of Covid - and we intend to grow the company but we need to take Harrogate with us.”

Pinewoods group’s views on plans

One of the main critics of Harrogate Spring Water’s plans to expand its bottling plant on Harlow has welcomed new consultation by the leading water brand - but insists it remains concerned over sustainability and biodiversity issues.

A spokesperson for Pinewoods Conservation Group said: “We are encouraged by this new consultation and a commitment to work with us and other key stakeholders to achieve a net biodiversity gain for the site and to create more shared areas.

“Any replacement for land lost is a must for the local community. We would encourage all those with an interest to attend the planned events and make their views known.”

A registered charity which first formed in 2002 to promote the maintenance and conservation of the environment within the Pinewoods area, Pinewoods Conservation Group remains concerned at the impact on the woodland and wildlife round the Harrogate Spring Water site.

Specifically, it is worried about the trees at Rotary Wood which was instigated in 2005 by Harrogate Rotary Club.

A PCG spokesperson said: “Whilst we are pleased that the plans for the larger site have now been dropped we are disappointed that the company still plan to progress with the original development.

“Since then, the public’s concerns around single use plastics and views on supporting the environment have strengthened substantially.

“This original plan still has a large footprint of almost two acres with the removal of many trees and the loss of public accessible green space.”