Councillors have rejected plans for the expansion of a bottled water plant on the site of a community woodland in a major victory for environmental campaigners.
Harrogate Spring Water and Danone, which bought a majority stake in the British water brand last year, had sought permission to further expand an existing bottled water production site onto an adjacent four-acre woodland in the North Yorkshire spa town.
The public forest, known as Rotary Wood, was planted by local children between 2005 and 2011 and hosts a variety of wildlife including wild orchids. It sits alongside Harrogate’s 96-acre Pinewoods forest.
At a planning committee meeting held today, Harrogate Borough councillors voted to reject the bottling plant expansion plans, with several members raising environmental concerns.
Speaking to the committee, councillor Jim Clark said: “This is the frontline in the fight to save the planet. This is where the battle for the planet is going to be fought. It’s what we do as individuals. I think it’s important that each and every one of us takes responsibility."
Harrogate Spring Water was granted outline permission to expand its bottling site in 2016 – a decision that was opposed by the town’s green groups. However, in 2019, the company submitted a revised application for a site that is 22 per cent larger than the one originally proposed. This revised application was rejected today.
Harrogate Council’s planning officers had recommended that the bottling plant expansion plans should be approved ahead of the meeting.
However, during the meeting, committee members raised concerns about how further expansion of the bottling facility could harm local biodiversity, efforts to boost carbon storage and Harrogate’s international reputation.
Objectors to the plans also argued that Rotary Wood had provided a place for “exercise and sanctuary” during the Covid pandemic.
Television presenter Julia Bradbury, who had written to councillors involved in the decision to urge them to reject the expansion plans, told The Independent: “This is a hugely significant move by a borough council because it shows an understanding and awareness of how important green spaces are for us all and how important it is for communities to be able to access these green spaces.
“We are nature-deficient in this country. We need more wild spaces and green spaces. And this goes to show that, sometimes, it’s not all about monetary value. There is real value in these places in terms of human value.”
Under the plans, more than half of the woodland would have been cut down to make way for the expanded bottling facility.
Neil Hind, chair of Pinewoods Conservation Group who spoke at the meeting, said: “We thank the planning committee for their considered debate and we are very pleased with their outcome to reject this application.
"We also thank all those groups, supporters and residents who have supported our campaign that has been much appreciated.
“This is a critical step in preserving Rotary Wood. Danone will now need to think very carefully on next steps if they decide to come back with a full application for the smaller extension where outlining planning is currently approved.”
A spokesperson for the Harrogate & District Green Party said they were “very pleased” with the outcome but agreed that the original outline planning permission obtained by Harrogate Spring Water in 2016 remained a concern.
“We now call on Harrogate Spring Water and Danone to work with local groups to find alternative and thorough compensation plans or, even further, to take a global lead in rethinking their business plan and look at sustainable ways to develop their business without destroying local wood or exporting plastic pollution,” the spokesperson said.
Leading scientists, celebrities, politicians and local residents had voiced their opposition to the plans in recent days.
Prof Piers Forster, who is director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds and a member of the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) as well as a Harrogate resident, previously told The Independent that the plans cast light on the importance of local decisions to the country’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Through the CCC we have a blueprint for getting the UK to net zero by 2050,” he said.
“This covers every part of the UK and every business in the UK. Being serious on net zero means looking at the carbon footprint of their business choices.
“Destroying 15 years of carbon sequestration by building over public woodland to increase plastic bottling is clearly a massive steer in the wrong direction.”
On hearing of today’s decision, he added: “Speaking as a resident, our planning committee made a bold decision today, one that the Cumbria planners should learn from.
“Harrogate will continue to be famous for its green spaces and cakes - not discarded plastic water bottles. The planners’ powers are limited, so the committee had to turn it down on quite technical grounds, so I’m sure it will go to appeal.
“Speaking as a member of the UK Climate Change Committee, local actions on transport, buildings and nature are at the core of future UK emission reduction. However, there are currently gaps in local authority powers, as well as policy and funding barriers that provide serious risks to the delivery of net-zero.”
To compensate for cutting down the majority of Rotary Wood, Danone and Harrogate Spring Water had offered to replant the trees lost on another site in Harrogate.
“It is important to say that we are committed to replacing the trees that we remove on a minimum two for one basis and to looking after these trees for a minimum of 30 years,” Rob Pickering, a senior representative for Harrogate Spring Water, previously told The Independent.
However, the replacement trees would have been on private land, meaning the local community would not be able to access it, campaigners said.
And research by Prof Forster and Anna Gugan, a member of Zero Carbon Harrogate and a tree officer at the University of Leeds, found that the number of replacement trees planted would need to be five times higher than what has been offered in order to make up for the carbon lost from Rotary Wood by 2038.
In response to today’s decision, Mr Pickering said: “We’re disappointed by the committee’s decision to reject the revision of our planning application.
“We have been able to clearly demonstrate the economic and environmental benefits, as well as outline our commitment to leaving a positive environmental impact. At this stage, we will need to consider our options and decide on our next steps.
“However, irrespective of this decision, we would like to reassure our local community that we are committed to keeping them informed and involved with any environmental measures and landscaping developments at the Harrogate Spring Water site in the future.”
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