Great Britain

North Yorkshire woodland faces axe under bottled water plant expansion plans

A community woodland planted by school children in North Yorkshire faces being cut down to allow for the expansion of a bottled water plant.

Danone, the French food conglomerate, bought a majority stake in popular British water brand Harrogate Spring Water last year. The two companies are planning to expand an existing bottled water production site onto an adjacent four-acre area of woodland in the North Yorkshire spa town.

The public forest, known as Rotary Wood, was planted by local children between 2005 and 2010 and hosts a variety of wildlife including wild orchids. It sits alongside Harrogate’s 96-acre Pinewoods forest.

Under the plans, more than half of the woodland would be cut down to make way for the planned bottling facility, which mainly uses plastic bottles.

Prof Piers Forster, who is a patron of Zero Carbon Harrogate, a group promoting local solutions to help the UK get to net-zero emissions, as well as being the director of Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds and a member of the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), told The Independent: “The wood and plant is right at the end of my road and, for my lockdown walk, I use the wood nearly every day.

“But, more importantly, through the CCC we have a blueprint for getting the UK to net zero by 2050. 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. There are many great green business opportunities in both the UK and the Harrogate area to drive jobs and economic growth. These should be prioritised over sending more plastic bottles out to pollute the world with the Harrogate name on them.”

In a world-first report released in December, the CCC – who act as the government’s independent climate advisers – set out a detailed pathway for how the UK can reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The report notes that tree-planting will need to be massively upscaled if the UK is to reach its climate target. At present, England is still far away from meeting its current tree-planting targets.

Rotary Wood, Harrogate, as pictured on 21 January

Anna Gugan, another member of Zero Carbon Harrogate, who is also a tree officer at the University of Leeds, told The Independent: “The fundamental message of taking out a woodland planted by the community, by my children and their primary school, and replacing it with more plastic water bottles seems very strange.”

Harrogate Spring Water was granted outline planning permission to expand its bottling site in 2017 – 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 around 40 per cent larger than the one originally proposed. Danone joined Harrogate Spring Water in seeking permission for expansion after buying a majority stake in the firm in 2020.

Harrogate Council will decide on whether to approve Danone and Harrogate Spring Water’s amended planning application later this month on 26 January.

An aerial shot of Harrogate Spring Water’s current bottling plant and the proposed development area

“What we’re really hoping for is on 26 January the councillors at Harrogate Council reject this proposed amendment,” Neil Hinds, chair of the Pinewoods Conservation Group, a charity responsible for the conservation of the Pinewoods forest, told The Independent.

“We’ve been against this expansion since it was first put forward. And now we are also objecting the plans for the larger extension, which will see most of the area that we know as Rotary Wood to disappear.

“It will have a massive impact on the ecology of that area. We’ve had nature cameras in there over the past few years so we know what’s in there. There’s lots of animal life in there. There are wild orchids. And all of that is under threat.”

Wild orchids in Rotary Wood, Harrogate in 2017

To compensate for cutting down the majority of Rotary Wood, Danone and Harrogate Spring Water have 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,” said Rob Pickering, a senior representative for Harrogate Spring Water.

However, this new planting site would be on private land, meaning the local community would not be able to access it, the green groups say. In addition, this site would be disconnected from Pinewoods forest.

“The problem with what they’ve offered is it’s really not appropriate at all,” said Ms Gugan.

“It’s not connected and it’s not accessible by the public. It will be leased for 30 years. It is a minimal offer.”

In response, Mr Pickering said the new private site was chosen for the replacement trees because it was “near to" Rotary Wood, offering “ecological” benefits. In addition to replanting trees, the company would leave the remaining part of the Rotary Wood open to the public and make efforts to improve its “biodiversity and accessibility”, he said.

An ecologist from Harrogate Council has “reviewed the planning application and announced their agreement of the plans put forward”, Mr Pickering added.

A spokesperson from Harrogate Council said a planning committee report will be published in advance of the meeting on 26 January. The report will consider whether the planned bottling plant expansion is compatible with the council’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions.

The Independent also contacted representatives from Danone for comment. The company previously pledged to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain by 2020.

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