The council owns the land where the company is based on Harlow Moor Road and receives £13,000 a year in ground rent.
Harrogate Spring Water also has to pay a percentage of annual turnover to the council. This is known as turnover rent.
The turnover rent agreement was drawn up in the early 2000s when the council granted planning permission on the land leased to the company.
In 2019 Harrogate Spring Water, which is now owned by French multinational Danone, posted annual sales of £21.6 million.
However, the council has never revealed publicly what it receives in turnover rent.
This week it refused to disclose the figures to the Stray Ferret for the second time.
We submitted a freedom of information request to the council in January asking how much it received in turnover rent from Harrogate Spring Water in the last five years.
The council replied in February saying the figures were exempt from disclosure because:
“This information is deemed to be of commercial value and, if disclosed, may impact on the council’s ability to negotiate and harm its legitimate interests, putting it in a commercially disadvantageous situation.”
We then requested an internal review of the decision. Yesterday’s response upheld the original exemption.
Joanne Barclay, acting chief solicitor at the council, repeated the claim that the council could be weakened commercially if the sum was disclosed.
Ms Barclay said:
“Whilst I agree there is public interest in openness and transparency when the council is utilising public money, there is also a public interest in allowing the council to withhold information which would reduce its ability to negotiate in a commercial environment if disclosed.
“I also consider an impact on other negotiations. It is important that leaseholders feel confident in the council as a provider of accommodation to the area. Confidence may be eroded if commercial rents were to be disclosed.
Furthermore, it is in the public interest that the council is able to compete in a competitive marketplace and in respecting the commercial interests of both the council and leaseholders as this assists it in the provision of public services. The work it does for the local community is inherently in the public interest and it is essential that it is able to carry on that work in the most effective and efficient way possible.”
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What happens next?
The council’s financial relationship with Harrogate Spring Water came under scrutiny last year when the company submitted plans to expand its bottling plant in the Pinewoods from 0.77 hectares to 0.94 hectares.
Council officers recommended the application be approved but the planning committee went against this and refused in what was was one of the most high-profile planning decisions of recent years.
But the matter is far from over.
Harrogate Spring Water already has outline planning permission, granted in 2017, to expand into Rotary Wood in the Pinewoods.
The company now needs to go through a second stage of the application process, known as reserved matters, to ratify details such as the appearance of the bottling plant and the felling of trees in Rotary Wood.
The council’s planning committee is expected to consider this application this year.
Pinewoods Conservation Group has repeatedly called on the council to publish how much money it receives each year from Harrogate Spring Water.
A spokesperson said:
“It is clear that if Rotary Wood is leased or sold to Danone then this will be an additional income stream for Harrogate council.
“This income will need to be balanced by councillors against the loss of green space, impact on carbon reduction plans and the obvious ecological loss to the district.
“Without the public knowing the figures involved this is likely to be a very difficult debate to have in a transparent way.”
The Stray Ferret has appealed the decision not to disclose the figures to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is a non-departmental public body.