COMMUNITY woodland planted by children between 2005 and 2011 in North Yorkshire could be facing the chop to allow the expansion of a water-bottling plant and mainly using – wait for it – plastic bottles.

Danone, the French food conglomerate, bought a majority stake in the well-known British water brand Harrogate Spring Water last year. The new corporate venture wasted no time in leaving its mark by proposing the expansion of an existing water bottling plant onto an adjacent four-acre area of woodland in the North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate. Woodland under threat is a public facility known as Rotary Wood which sits alongside Harrogate’s 96-acre Pinewoods Forest. Under the proposal more than half of the woodland will be felled.

Forestry Journal: 15 years after planting, the formative aspects of woodland are established to offer an already substantial site for carbon sequestration. The Oxfordshire woodland shown here was planted from scratch just over 15 years earlier.15 years after planting, the formative aspects of woodland are established to offer an already substantial site for carbon sequestration. The Oxfordshire woodland shown here was planted from scratch just over 15 years earlier.

Local residents including a local climate scientist are naturally up in arms and fighting hard to stop the ‘hare-brained’ scheme. Encouraging children to plant woodland to mitigate climate change and then felling it 15 years later to fill plastic bottles with water, you couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Anna Gugan, tree officer at the University of Leeds, and member of Zero Carbon Harrogate, 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.” Zero Carbon Harrogate is a group promoting local solutions to help the UK get to zero carbon emissions.

Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change, 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 woods and [water bottling] plant is right at the end of my road and, for my lockdown walk, I use the woods 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”.

Forestry Journal: 15 years of growth will produce a substantial tree, even with a relatively slow-growing species like Malus sylvestris (crab apple) shown here.15 years of growth will produce a substantial tree, even with a relatively slow-growing species like Malus sylvestris (crab apple) shown here.

Professor Forster said: “Destroying 15 years of carbon sequestration by building over publicly-accessed 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.

The report to which Professor Foster refers to is ‘The Sixth Carbon Budget – the UK’s path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050’ published in December 2020 by CCC who act as the government’s independent climate advisers.

According to the Independent, Harrogate Spring Water was granted outline planning permission to expand its bottling site in 2017, a decision 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.

Forestry Journal: Arrival of wild orchids is a sure sign that ecological trends are going in the right direction. Pyramidal orchids in Essex shown here.Arrival of wild orchids is a sure sign that ecological trends are going in the right direction. Pyramidal orchids in Essex shown here.

Harrogate Council will decide on whether to approve the Danone and Harrogate Spring Water amended planning application on 26 January 2021. Given the ongoing obsession with a national green agenda, which includes planting trees and reducing plastic pollution, you wonder how such ‘crackpot’ ideas even manage to come before a local authority planning committee.

“What we’re really hoping for is that on 26 January 2021 the councillors at Harrogate Council reject this proposed amendment,” said Neil Hinds, chair of the Pinewoods Conservation Group, a charity responsible for the conservation of the Pinewoods Forest. “We’ve been against an 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 set 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 and also wild orchids. And all of that is under threat,” said Neil Hinds. With ages up 15 years the trees will already be substantial sites for carbon sequestration while the presence of orchids shows that woodland management has clearly proceeded along the right path.

To compensate for cutting down the majority of Rotary Wood, Danone and Harrogate Spring Water have offered the usual ‘fell one and get one free’, which is rapidly becoming the standard bargaining tool in such increasingly frequent stand-offs. “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 a senior representative for Harrogate Spring Water. 

However, this new planting site offered by the company would be on private land and disconnected from Pinewoods Forest and as such leading to loss of access for the local community. Anne Gugan told the Independent: “The problem with what they’ve offered is that it’s really not appropriate at all. It [the proposed new woodland] is not connected and not accessible by the public. It will be leased for 30 years. It is a minimal offer.”

In response, the company says the new private site was chosen for the replacement trees because it was “near to" Rotary Wood and 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”. The company’s representative told the Independent that an ecologist from Harrogate Council has “reviewed the planning application and announced their agreement of the plans put forward”.

A spokesperson for Harrogate Council told the Independent that 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.

There is clearly something wrong with the council’s calculations on carbon emissions if this proposal is passed. Harrogate is listed as one of the ‘greenest’ towns in England with the council openly boasting of its ‘Carbon Reduction Strategy’ to give Harrogate a net zero-carbon economy by 2038. But if this sort of development can even be considered in a town supposed to be leading the way on the ‘green agenda’ then heaven help the environment and the government’s plans for a greener England.

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