Campaigners accuse council of secret woodland deal with RHS

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CONSERVATIONISTS have accused Harrogate Borough Council and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) of undertaking a secret “land grabbing” exercise after it emerged that the two bodies are in negotiations about leasing part of the town’s pinewoods.

The RHS, which recently had plans controversially approved by the borough council to build a 150-space temporary car park and a 500-space permanent car park at Harlow Carr on the edge of the Pinewoods, is planning to lease an area of the beauty-spot around the new site.

However, residents and members of the Pinewoods Conservation Group have reacted furiously to the proposals, claiming the woods, which link into the spa town’s Valley Gardens, should remain in the hands of the people of Harrogate.

Councillor Jim Clark, who represents the Harrogate Harlow division of North Yorkshire County Council, said: “The council must have been talking to the RHS about this at the same time as the car park plans were going through, yet it was never disclosed.

“There is an issue of openness and transparency here. I do not think that any part of the Pinewoods should be leased to anybody.

“It is an iconic area and part of Harrogate’s heritage.What worries me is whether this is a done deal already.”

Peter Blayney, who is a member of the Pinewoods Conservation Group, added: “As a group we are fiercely opposed to this. The Pinewoods are sacred ground to the people of Harrogate as an area of recreation.

“What have we come to when an organisation would even suggest such a plan.”

Harrogate Borough Council has strenuously denied allegations that the negotiations are taking place in secret.

A spokeswoman said a meeting has been held with the council, the RHS and the Pinewoods Conservation Group to consider the proposals, and any concerns which are raised would be written into the lease.

The RHS is aiming to create a footpath along a small area of the Pinewoods for visitors to use, linking the current RHS car park to the new parking area on the north side of the woods.

The proposal would mean that the RHS would take responsibility for this section of the Pinewoods including the footpath maintenance, litter picking, woodland planting and drainage.

Liz Thwaite, the head of site at RHS Garden Harlow Carr, said: “The ongoing management of this area of the Pinewoods is important to the RHS, and also to Harrogate Borough Council, for a number of reasons.

“When the new car park is open, the route through the Pinewoods will have to be maintained for the safety and enjoyment of all visitors to the area.

“As with any aspect of our site, with the appropriately trained staff and adequate resources, we believe we will be in a strong position to maintain the area to a high standard for everyone’s benefit.”

Critics condemned the decision to approve the new car park at Harlow Carr in September, warning that it could let development encroaching on the Pinewoods.

A temporary car park of 150 spaces to the south will be used for up to five years, while the introduction of the larger facility will be phased in over 10 years.

The chairman of Harrogate Borough Council’s planning committee cast the deciding vote over the contentious plans after votes were split down the middle.

The RHS – which created a new 200-space car park at Harlow Carr in December 2002 and currently uses the nearby Cardale Park business estate as an overspill facility – has insisted that the expansion is necessary to accommodate a huge surge in visitor numbers from 70,000 in 2001 to a predicted 300,000 by 2014.

However, groups including the Harrogate Civic Society have claimed that the success of the renowned gardens is now coming at the expense of the surrounding countryside.