In depth: Will it be a fresh start in Harrogate Spring Water's long battle for expansion

A saga which began 16 years ago when a group of Harrogate schoolchildren planted trees at Rotary Wood near the town’s cherished Pinewoods has entered a new phase with hopes of a fresh start.

Thursday, 5th August 2021, 5:46 pm
Updated Thursday, 5th August 2021, 5:55 pm
Harrogate Spring Water's announcement that it would accept the rejection of the most recent version of its expansion plans has been welcomed by all sides after five years of emotive debate.

Last week’s announcement by Harrogate Spring Water that it would accept the rejection of the most recent version of its expansion plans into the four acres of community woodland has been welcomed by all sides after five years of emotive debate.

The famous bottled water company’s pledge to submit a new planning application in the coming weeks - with details shared widely with the community - sets the scene, potentially, for compromise with local residents and green groups who have been campaigning against the loss of trees funded by the Rotary Club of Harrogate on land belonging to Harrogate Borough Council.

James Cain, managing director of Harrogate Spring Water, said: “We’ve taken on board the feedback on our original expansion plans.

“We care passionately about acting in the best interests of Harrogate, its people and its natural environment. And that’s why we listen to the community.”

The local councillor for the area told the Harrogate Advertiser he welcomed the firm’s decision not to plough ahead after councillors rejected the details of expansion plans which had provoked the ire of national celebrities including TV presenter Julia Bradbury.

Coun Sam Gibbs (Valley Gardens ward) said: “I am pleased that Harrogate Spring Water will not be appealing the decision to refuse a further extension and I hope that provides some reassurance to residents who were concerned about the loss of public access to the Rotary Woods.”

The decision not to take to appeal its most recent version of its plans - which would have seen the potential development area increase by another 40% - also means Harrogate Borough Council avoids the necessity to confront yet another planning dilemma in a growing list of trouble spots.

Harrogate councils’ own planning officers had recommended approval of the company’s plans but councillors themselves have shown growing reluctance to support developments unpopular with residents.

Recent months have seen councillors vote against:

Two different housing plans in the Kingsley area of Harrogate;

A Starbucks drive-thru on Wetherby Road in Harrogate;

Plans for 260 homes at Stump Cross in Boroughbridge.

The fact that developers behind the drive-thru went on to win their appeal after the council opted not to contest the Starbucks plan is, to some, an illustration of the system’s shortcomings.

Harrogate council is on record as defending its record on planning committee decisions at the appeal stage as one of “significant success”. But it has also said bluntly it will not risk the time and cost of fighting appeals without strong legal backing from officers and a realistic chance of success.

Whether an appeal from Harrogate Spring Water would have gone the same way as Starbucks is now a matter of conjecture.

The business, which last year saw Danone - the multinational food-products corporation - buy a majority stake in it, must now prove to residents groups, green campaigners and the council that their next set of plans will address existing concerns.

Councillors at the time of that famous, if partial, victory in January at the planning meeting said they voted the way they did partly because they thought the details of Section 106 Agreement meant to secure the long-term management of a ‘biodiversity compensation site’ did not go nearly far enough to balance the loss of trees at Rotary Wood or guarantee public access.

A spokesperson for the Pinewoods Conservation Group said a key challenging factor would be the scale of any new offer of suitable publicly accessible land as mitigation for loss of public green space.

“We will review any new plans carefully and continue to engage but any plans that result in the loss of any part of Rotary Wood that is part of a designated “Asset of Community Value” under the Localism Act will continue to be difficult for our members to support.”

Harrogate Green Party has called on Harrogate Spring Water to take community and environmental interests into full consideration when it submits its next planning application for expansion. A spokesperson said: “We hope that Harrogate Spring Water will take local community members and groups concerns seriously and reconsider innovative ways to use the existing site.

“Failing that, they will need to ensure complete and valuable compensation for both nature and public access for any loss of Rotary Wood.”

Like everyone else , Harrogate Borough Council is waiting to see what happens next with Harrogate Spring Water’s application. For now, it is staying tight-lipped on the matter.

A spokesperson told the Harrogate Advertiser: “We note that Harrogate Spring Water won’t be appealing the planning committee decision, and await their submission of a new planning application in due course.”

They will not be the only ones waiting patiently.

Expansion plans: What Harrogate Spring Water says

Despite the sometimes rancorous nature of the debate over the implications of Harrogate Spring Water’s battle to expand, the company has always stressed it wants to be a “good neighbour”.

Its announcement not to appeal the decision taken by Harrogate Borough Council earlier this year rejecting its expansion plans allows a pause in the debate.

The firm now says it will consult with the community before submitting a new planning application to “benefit the town and its natural environment”. Details of the proposed application, it adds, will be shared widely in the coming weeks.

James Cain, managing director of Harrogate Spring Water, said: “We care passionately about acting in the best interests of Harrogate, its people and its natural environment. And that’s why we listen to the community.

“Our vision is to create a sustainable future for our business as one that supports high quality jobs, drives prosperity in the town and looks after nature.

“We’ve taken on board the feedback on our original expansion plans.

“Now we’ll continue to engage with the community - actively seeking views on a revised plan that responds to people’s concerns and ambitions.

“We’ll also be clear in explaining our rationale, and why we believe this move is important from an environmental and economic perspective.

“We’ll provide a further update in the coming weeks.”

Harrogate Spring Water has always appeared perplexed by claims thrown its way occasionally when the controversy has made the national news of ‘putting profit and plastic before the environment’.

It points to its long record of environmental commitments.

Earlier this year, the company said : “We want to continue our role as environmental stewards in protecting and enhancing our catchment and the green space that surrounds our site.”

Expansion plans: What Pinewoods Conservation Group says

“We will review any new plans carefully and continue to engage. We are also pleased to see that the feedback provided by ourselves and other groups will be taken onboard.

“However, any plans that result in the loss of any part of Rotary Wood that is part of a designated “Asset of Community Value” under the Localism Act will continue to be difficult for our members to support.

“A key challenging factor that is likely to remain will be the offer of suitable publicly accessible land as mitigation for any loss of public green space that was much lacking in previous proposals.”

Expansion plans: What Harrogate District Green Party says

"We hope that Harrogate Spring Water will take local community members and groups concerns seriously and reconsider innovative ways to use the existing site.

"Failing that, they will need to ensure complete and valuable compensation for both nature and public access for any loss of Rotary Wood.

"The past suggestions included a substantial wildlife corridor from the site to Birk Crags across the agricultural fields, requiring heavy investment.

"Still, if Harrogate Spring Water is serious about local wildlife and community access, they could look at ways to achieve this."