Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Eighth Report


Recognising historical, environmental and amenity value

32. Cemetery landscapes are thus unique in combining built and natural features that often have achieved a degree of maturity: their historical and ecological value is immeasurable. However, statutory designation, from both historical and ecological perspectives, is insufficiently flexible to accommodate the protection of landscapes containing a diversity of features.[83] The Friends of War Memorials pointed out

    Cemeteries are a significant and particular type of heritage resource, but in our experience are not always valued as such ... Whereas some cemeteries are themselves, or lie within, designated Conservation Areas, in others protection is limited to the individual listing of particular monuments, often in the absence of an overview of the grain and complexity of the whole cemetery, which provides the context for these listed memorials.[84]

In particular, there can be conflicts between historical and ecological conservation aims. English Nature wrote

    ... benefits to biodiversity have often come at the expense of the ornamental, cultural and recreational value of cemeteries. Many, through years of neglect, have witnessed the decay and dereliction of monuments, to the dismay of many visitors. ... We acknowledge the need for a balance between management for wildlife, and the other important functions that cemeteries provide.[85]

Additionally, of course, it must never be forgotten that the historical, educational, amenity and nature conservation value of cemeteries are all secondary to the central concern of the provision of appropriately maintained and managed space for the burial of the dead.

33. English Heritage and English Nature should work together to formulate special assessment procedures for cemeteries which encourage cooperation between those seeking to protect the built and natural heritage value which they represent. Where appropriate, these should be used to draw up comprehensive management plans for cemeteries which pull together the various competing demands on the cemetery.[86] In all cases, the primary purpose of the cemetery, as a place for the service of the bereaved, must be paramount, and historical, educational and amenity uses conducted with all due sensitivity.

Cemeteries and the Urban Renaissance

  34. Establishing a well-maintained and frequently-visited cemetery was at the heart of Victorian civic endeavour: many communities felt that without such sites, they were lacking in an essential prerequisite of civility. In Dundee in 1847, for example, promoters of a new cemetery considered its foundation as being closely linked to local improvement:

Yet, as the Garden History Society point out,

    cemeteries are today not seen as fundamentally fulfilling the same role as public parks, botanic gardens or arboreta, in terms of the civic realm of a civilized city, a concept epitomised by Robinet in his 1869 Paris sans Cimetière: "Without a cemetery, there is no city". Indeed it is notable that cemeteries are not referred to as part of "the public realm" in the Urban Task Force's Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999); nor do they appear to receive a mention in the Urban White Paper. This represents a significant failure in strategic thinking about the public realm and urban policy generally.[88]

35. As we noted in our Report on the Urban White Paper, fostering a sense of place is a very important part of encouraging an urban renaissance.[89] Two centuries ago, churchyards would offer that sense of place, shared with the rest of the community. It was where your ancestors were buried, where everyone else's ancestors were buried, and was a focal point for the local community. As the population has grown and become more mobile, however, this has ceased to be the case. In some places - Manchester and Birmingham city centres, for example - old graveyards have been carefully restored and made pleasant open space for people to walk through or sit in. However, in some cities, and certainly many towns, graveyards are a disgrace: full of tumbledown graves and gravestones, abandoned by all but alcoholics and drug users. Many of our large cemeteries are in a similar neglected state - haunts for wildlife, newspaper reporters in search of stories about black magic, and children seeking adventure, often vandalising grave stones with spray paint.[90] Yet this need not - should not - be the case.

36. The environmental, historical and cultural significance of cemeteries, as we demonstrate above, is such that to ignore the contribution they could make to the regeneration of our cities would be not only to risk the loss of a very important part of our civic infrastructure, but to miss a very substantial opportunity for the proper recognition of a previously under-appreciated urban resource. Pam Alexander of English Heritage said

    there clearly is a substantial dis-value in an area of space which is clearly neglected at the heart of the community. That has an impact, not just on the community itself and its own feelings of value but, also, on investors in the area and on people coming to the area. We would see that investment in the public realm is very important in attracting economic activity because it shows that a place is cared for, that it has hope and that it is on the up and not on the down.[91]

Jane Horton of the Friends of the General Cemetery in Sheffield told us of how the work her group was doing was contributing to the regeneration of a deprived part of that city:

    Many cemeteries are in deprived areas of cities and ours certainly is. What we do, and I believe we could be doing a lot more of, is acting as a channel, as I have said, for funding but also for the promotion of skills development and training for long-term unemployed people and for disabled people. We have an office where we have many volunteers coming along. We carry out work with people on their reparation orders, for example, with probation officers. There are lots and lots of different types of activities and work and skills development that can take place. It is not just on the site, it is off the site too. We are developing a database of burial records, for example, that is IT skills development. There is a lot of work that can be done in terms of creating training and employment opportunities for local people.[92]

37. In the last ten years, we have seen local communities and local councils set about reclaiming old statues and monuments from neglect. Similarly, there have been very successful schemes to reclaim urban spaces from the motorcar to create pedestrianised precincts, and to fill them with special events. Just as important, many old buildings, warehouses, factories and workhouses are being turned into lively attractive housing, retail, leisure and office developments. There have also been some great restorations of urban parks - although not by any means enough - with funds from the National Lottery. In all of these cases, urban regeneration has role models. Sadly, no such flagship projects exist for the restoration of our grand Victorian municipal cemeteries.

38. In evidence to our inquiry of last year on the Urban White Paper, Ken Worpole told us

    One feels obliged also to mention the need for new thinking about the provision of cemeteries or burial space in cities. Cemeteries have always been focal points of meaning and history in cities, but today few towns and cities have burial space left, and as a result people are often buried at some distance from the community in which they have lived. Inner city cemeteries, now full, are often left to vandalism and neglect because they no longer possesses any economic rationale, and high land values inhibit the development of new burial grounds. But something vital is lost in this scenario, and the city loses one of its principal historic and cultural features. New thinking about the design and provision of burial space in the city is urgently needed.[93]

He followed this up in evidence to this current inquiry:

    The redemptive qualities of the 'English country churchyard' have not been captured in this century by a similar attention to the sanctuary and reflective qualities of the urban cemetery... The need for new kinds of parks, memorial gardens and cemeteries is important for establishing the sense of 'urbanity' and 'history' which are the marks of true urban living.[94]

39. Yet cemeteries that are run-down, neglected and uncared for become places not for quiet contemplation and reflection, but rather dangerous, shadowy areas in which visitors cannot even feel safe. This creates a vicious circle of decline in which neglect becomes in the eyes of local authorities justified because no-one visits. If cemeteries are to regain their value as an urban 'oasis',[95] the very first step which has to be made is to ensure that they are made safe. In this way the vicious circle can be replaced by a virtuous one, as the value of such places is recognised and the local community realises that cemeteries are worth looking after.

40. We believe that cemeteries remain of great importance to our towns and cities, and have the potential to make a significant contribution to the aims of the Urban White Paper. Sadly, DETR officials showed only limited appreciation of the importance of addressing the problems facing cemeteries as part of the Government's urban regeneration programme.[96] The Minister for Local Government, appearing at a later stage in our inquiry, did not seem particularly keen to impress upon us that her Department was taking the issues surrounding cemeteries seriously as part of the Government's vision of an urban renaissance.[97] The DETR should make clear its recognition that the problems facing cemeteries should be addressed, and their contribution appreciated, when developing urban policy.

41. When addressing the problems facing cemeteries, however, it is essential that the differences between them, on the one hand, and parks and other open spaces, on the other, be recognised. The nature of cemetery landscapes, and the particular environmental, cultural and historical significance which they hold, mean that policies designed to address the problems facing parks and other open spaces will often be inadequate or inappropriate for application in cemeteries. We felt that the DETR, particularly in oral evidence at the start of our inquiry, displayed insufficient recognition of the important differences between cemeteries and parks and other open spaces.[98] We will be looking for the DETR to demonstrate in practice the welcome acknowledgement by the Minister at a later stage of the inquiry that cemeteries require special consideration as a particular kind of landscape.[99]

Cemeteries in Decline

The condition of cemeteries

  42. Basic information on the condition and needs of cemeteries in the country is lacking.[100] It appears from evidence to this inquiry, however, that while many local authorities continue to provide a decent level of maintenance in their cemeteries, and a few are excellent,[101] the condition of many cemeteries is unacceptable.[102] Just a few quotations from the evidence we received serve to demonstrate the problems we are faced with:

    ...I am in the habit of visiting both Philips Park and Moston Cemeteries and each time I go I am disgusted at the state of them. It is not only the vandalism but total neglect of the graves ...[103]

    ...Nothing is more depressing than the appearance of Abney Park, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets Cemeteries, three of London's original great seven. Highgate and Kensal Green are not much better. They are derelict; given over to brambles, Japanese knotweed and sycamores; and prey to vandalism, neglect and decay. Coming upon a wonderful old tomb in these or many other cemeteries must be like coming across a Mayan temple in the Central American jungle ...[104]

    ...Apart from providing burial space, these open spaces were originally designed for promenading and recreation. Over the years these areas have been forgotten and neglected ... Today, they look forlorn and unattended, the monuments are broken and mis-placed, graffiti is found on the walls, the gates are broken and the gate piers badly eroded. There is a general air of abandonment and neglect ...[105]

    ... [referring to Spine Cop cemetery, Hartlepool] ... 18 months ago its neglect was acute, its condition was serious, its care was poor... I find its condition appalling... In Spine Cop there are some 26,000 burials - only some 200-300 can be seen today. If proper funding is not forthcoming in the very near future the outer walls will fall down as there are many signs of collapse. Its environmental, historical and cultural significance has been ignored. Its condition is poor, responsibilities have been ignored or forgotten, management is poor, funding from outside bodies is slow or non-existent...[106]

    ... [Ford Park Cemetery] Trust inherited a legacy of vandalism, neglect, under-investment and weak management stretching back over a number of years. Many parts of the Cemetery were overgrown and inaccessible, and the overall state of the Cemetery was an affront not only to those with family buried there but to all right-thinking people. Unstable headstones, masonry which had been degraded by vegetation and subsiding graves presented major hazards to public safety ...[107]

    ... Today, Arnos Vale, together with many other Victorian cemeteries, has reached crisis point. As they have filled up, the incomes of the privately owned cemeteries have dwindled. Less money is available to pay staff, and new systems of local rating have reduced cash flow for maintenance. Changes in social outlook have led to vandalism and indifference. The early Acts of Incorporation state that it is not the duty of the companies to care for individual graves. There are fewer descendants left to care for graves and, in any case, sadly this is no longer a matter of any consequence to many ... These cemeteries, including Arnos Vale, are in a condition of gross neglect. Memorials are destroyed. Wind­born seeds of Ash and Sycamore grow into saplings, slowly but surely eroding the grassland areas, and bramble closes the paths once walked by visitors to family graves ...[108]

These quotations refer to specific cemeteries; but are by no means untypical. They reflect the condition of many of the country's burial grounds. Unsafe, littered, vandalised, unkempt, these cemeteries shame all society in their lack of respect for the dead and the bereaved.

Reasons for decline

  43. The reasons for this apparent decline are manifold. Charges for burial rarely reflect the expenditure required to keep a cemetery 'in good order and repair' as required by legislation,[109] and thus cemeteries are rarely economically viable without subsidy.[110] Such subsidy, coming as it does from the budgets of hard-pressed local authorities, is frequently insufficient to maintain cemeteries to a high standard.[111] As a result, inadequate attention has been paid to repairing the basic infrastructure, roads, drainage and buildings, and poor levels of maintenance are evident at many sites.[112] The appearance of neglect engendered by poor maintenance in turn encourages vandalism, which worsens the situation. This is a particular problem at the increasing number of cemeteries where little or no space remains for burial to take place. Not only is there in this case virtually no income for maintenance, but there are often no permanent members of staff present on the site to discourage inappropriate use of the grounds. Even where the local authority is committed to achieving a decent standard of maintenance, the complexities of the law with respect to monument safety have meant that local authorities are not empowered to repair memorials - the most evident landscape feature - except in the most extreme situations.[113] Financial deficits are matched by training deficits: many local authorities employ personnel who lack the required experience and qualifications adequately to meet the responsibilities of their post.[114] A lack of available space for burial is resulting in the practice of 'cramming',[115] threatening the essential character of many meticulously designed Victorian and Edwardian cemeteries.[116]

44. Underfunding is a very significant problem. The pressure on the resources of local authorities - who are financially responsible for the vast majority of cemeteries in this country - is widely acknowledged, and the consequences of the lack of funds must be faced by cemeteries no less than by other local authority services.[117] The impression we have gained from the evidence received for this inquiry, however, is that cemeteries are receiving less than their fair share of local government expenditure. The memorandum from Bristol City Council notes "the ... problem of cemeteries having to compete in competition for resources with other high profile services and departments, like education, social services, etc."[118] This complaint is echoed by the Corporation of London: "Cemeteries run by local authorities generally lose out in the fight for limited resources because they have to compete against other services, such as social services, refuse collection, and parks and leisure services, that have a much higher public and, therefore, political, profile."[119] Others made the same point.[120]

45. The result of this historic underfunding is a huge backlog of maintenance and the appalling state of many of our cemeteries which we describe above. Restormel Borough Council, for example, wrote

    ... within the Borough the cost of the service is currently heavily subsidised by the council tax payer. Income only accounts for one third of gross expenditure. In 1999/2000, for example, expenditure was £197,000 and income was £62,000. This reduces the ability of the Authority to invest in modern technology: for example there are no computerised records or recording of cemetery plans. The Council also cannot provide regular supervision of cemeteries, eg through resident caretakers, to help prevent vandalism and has to operate a policy of lawned cemeteries discouraging the use of monuments etc to facilitate low-cost maintenance. In addition the Council is unable to invest in maintaining its chapels, some of which are now no longer used for burial services but for storage etc.[121]

Calderdale MBC described the situation in that area:

    the cemeteries of Calderdale, in common with most other similarly placed authorities, run at a deficit, ie £102,000 per annum at current expenditure levels... In these circumstances, factors such as vandalism, rubbish­dumping and unauthorised items placed in the cemetery provide a severe impediment to resources which are already stretched.[122]

Many others made similar points.[123] A loss of £40 million was made on cemeteries by local authorities in the financial year 1997-98.[124] It is clear that many local authorities need to devote substantially more resources to cemeteries if they are to address seriously the problems which they face.

46. The decline in the country's cemeteries is not simply a matter of underfunding, however, serious though that problem is. Cemetery services were described to us by several witnesses as the 'Cinderella' service of local government - unconsidered, undervalued and unappreciated.[125] Particularly where the burial authority is constituted by a large metropolitan or unitary authority, cemeteries often find themselves lumped together in a 'Leisure and Amenity Services' brief where they are at the bottom of a very long list including sports facilities, libraries, tourism, children's playgrounds and parks.[126] These authorities seem to suffer from a lack of leadership, managers lacking the support of their department heads and of elected Council members.[127] We were disappointed, too, at the Local Government Association's failure to respond to this inquiry, which perhaps reflects the low priority placed on the service by many larger local authorities. Smaller burial authorities such as town and parish councils often show great pride in their management and maintenance of burial grounds, a fact reflected both in submissions from individual burial authorities (of which we received many) and in that from the Society of Local Council Clerks.[128] They are often hampered, however, by a lack of specialist help and guidance for managers who may have to manage a whole range of services across a small authority.[129]

47. Our society still accords great importance to issues relating to the disposal of the dead. The evidence submitted to this inquiry suggests that this fact has not been sufficiently recognised at senior strategic and executive levels within local authorities. We encourage all those concerned with the provision of this essential local government service to reexamine their attitude towards it. We particularly encourage the Local Government Association to become actively involved in efforts to raise the profile and standing of cemetery services within local government, and to examine what else it might do by way of developing and encouraging good practice in the provision of this service by its member authorities.

48. Lack of leadership has been evident nationally as well as locally. As Ken West of Carlisle City Council told us, "the government has ignored their responsibility on this issue for decades."[130] We recognise that the management of cemeteries is principally a local authority responsibility. However, the Government's consequent 'hands-off' approach to cemetery provision has given local authorities carte blanche to treat cemeteries as the lowest of low priorities. The Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions cannot be allowed to abdicate responsibility for ensuring that this service is managed in an effective manner, and the most basic standards met.

49. Genuine and active leadership is required from Government. Kirklees Metropolitan Council wrote, "The problem needs to be recognised at the very highest level of Government and a first important step would be to set up one central department to co-ordinate and direct the management, protection and public policy on cemeteries and crematoria.".[131] At the very least, leadership could take the form of the formulation and dissemination of good practice, as suggested by Calderdale MBC and others.[132] Ideally, however, we would like to see the Government actively advocating the importance of a decent, well-run cemetery service. We welcome the Home Office Minister's acknowledgement of the Government's leadership role, and we look forward to seeing the fruits of central Government's new attitude to cemetery provision.[133]

Other causes for concern

Running out of space for burial

  50. In previous centuries, burial grounds were continuously reused, and churchyards were able to accommodate the dead of the parish indefinitely. From the 1820s, massive population expansion in many urban centres placed existing burial sites under tremendous pressure. In some instances, disturbance of remains took place only weeks following an interment. New cemeteries located on the outskirts of the town had the space to offer undisturbed perpetual burial, which was attractive to a society that was placing an increasing importance in the ability to grieve by the grave side. The consequences of this concept of 'perpetuity burial' - burial undisturbed for all time - are only now beginning to become apparent.

51. The Government told us that the provision of land for burial was "a matter for local and commercial decisions in the light of demand."[134] There is no statutory duty on local authorities to ensure the provision of adequate space for burial, and therefore development plans do not have to include any reference to the issue. Nor is there any overarching planning authority with responsibility for monitoring the situation across a region, or across the country.

52. Detailed research by the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), carried out in 1997, demonstrated the serious lack of burial space in London. A number of London boroughs have only a few years' burial space remaining, and two - Hackney and Tower Hamlets - currently have no facilities for the burial of the dead.[135] Giles Dolphin, who, whilst at LPAC, instigated this research, told us that it amounted to a "crisis" in burial space provision in London.[136]

53. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that the problem is not confined to London - nor even to the South-east of England, where pressure on land is perhaps most acute. Whilst many burial authorities told us that they had upwards of 100 years' space left for burial,[137] we also received a significant number of submissions from around the country telling us of the impending exhaustion of their existing burial space and of difficulties in acquiring suitable new land for burial.[138] The Confederation of Burial Authorities told us that town and parish councils regularly seek advice from the Confederation on extending existing or establishing new burial grounds.[139] The problem, already acute in some places, seems set to get worse. It was clear from evidence that the cremation rate has settled to 72 per cent,[140] implying an increase in the numbers of people wishing to be buried. The apparent trend towards the interment of ashes following cremation is putting yet more pressure on burial space.[141]

54. There are three main reasons why this lack of burial space gives cause for concern. Perhaps most importantly, as space in cemeteries runs out, it becomes more and more difficult to ensure that the bereaved have the widest possible choice of decent, affordable options for disposal of the dead. A number of witnesses impressed upon us the importance of burial space being available locally: it is not good enough to have to say to the bereaved, sorry, you are going to have to bury your loved one twenty or more miles away, because there is no space left in your local cemetery or churchyard.[142] Secondly, pressure on space is leading many cemetery managers to eke out provision by 'cramming', evident in a great many cemeteries.[143] At present, this is the only alternative available in many places, but it is highly undesirable. It fundamentally alters the character and design of a cemetery, potentially affecting not only its heritage value, but also its appropriateness as a place for the bereaved. Thirdly, cemeteries and 'closed' churchyards with little or no space left for burial can become a substantial burden on local communities. It is these cemeteries which are often the most neglected and run down, left to decay because they have no further use.[144]

55. Research on the provision of burial space nationwide is urgently required. The research on cemeteries which we have above recommended take place should address this requirement. Assuming that there is a serious problem - and, in London at least, it seems clear that there is - it will also be necessary to find a solution. We consider this further below.[145]

83  See ev pp. 77-78; p.126; p.139 Back

84  Ev p.126 Back

85  Ev p.139 Back

86  See para 126 for fuller discussion of cemetery management plans. Back

87  Address by the Directors of the Dundee Cemetery Company to the Inhabitants of Dundee and its Vicinity, Local History Library: Dundee (1847).  Back

88  Ev p.135 Back

89  Eleventh Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, Proposed Urban White Paper (HC 185), para 28 Back

90  See para 42 below Back

91  Q450 Back

92  Q91 Back

93  Proposed Urban White Paper: Memoranda relating to the inquiry submitted to the Committee, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee (HC 185-II (1999-2000)). Back

94  Ev p.17 Back

95  See ev p.11; p.25; p.43; p.83; p.109; &c. Back

96  Q129 Back

97  Q515 Back

98  QQ121, 128, 129 Back

99  QQ527-529 Back

100  See para 10 above Back

101  Ev p.26; p.56; p.65; p.135; p.200; Annex Back

102  Ev pp. 12-13; p.19; p.26; p.29; p.37; p.51; p.56; p.67; pp. 85-86; p.101; p.109; p.119; p.122; p.126; pp. 135-136; pp. 147-148; p.172; p.173; p.182; p.193; p.199; p.200; &c. Back

103  Ev p.200 Back

104  Ev p.193 Back

105  Ev p.182 Back

106  Ev p.24 Back

107  Ev p.47 Back

108  Ev p.43 Back

109  Article 4(1), Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order 1977 Back

110  See below Back

111  Ev p.19; p.56; p.68; p.173; p.199  Back

112  Ev pp. 12-13; p.37; p.43; p.51; p.56; p.59; p.61; p.102; p.109; pp. 122-123; pp. 143-144; p.172  Back

113  Ev p.20; p.63; p.119; p.144; p.173  Back

114  Ev p.38; p.61; p.92; p.173; Q16; Q19 Back

115  'Cramming' refers to the practice of digging new graves between existing graves, on pathways, in areas currently used for flower beds, &c. in order to utilise all available space in a cemetery. Back

116  Ev p.85; p.213; p.172; Q492 Back

117  Q574 Back

118  Ev p.120 Back

119  Ev p.86 Back

120  Ev p.199 Back

121  Ev p.32 Back

122  Ev p.55 Back

123  Ev pp. 34, 36; p.41; p.50; p.77; p.102; p.153; p.161; &c. Back

124  Ev p. 83 Back

125  Ev p.12; p.19; p.24; p.86; p.136; p.147; p.173 Back

126  Ev p.33 Back

127  Ev p.12; p.19 Back

128  Ev pp. 65-67 Back

129  Q317 Back

130  Ev p.38 Back

131  Ev p.59 Back

132  Ev p.54. See also ev p.38; p.199. Back

133  Q580 Back

134  Ev p.79 Back

135  See Burial Space Needs in London, LPAC, December 1996; and Planning for Burial Space in London, LPAC, August 1997. See also ev pp. 190-196. Back

136  Q263 Back

137  Ev p.1; p.32; p.47; p.121; ev not printed (Caldicot (Cil-y-Coed) Town Council; Cuckfield Parish Council). Back

138  Ev p.5; pp. 9-10; p.32; p.59; p.69; p.86; p.112; pp. 127-131; p.153; Q268; QQ354-355. Back

139  Ev p.56 Back

140  Q65; Q263; Q268. Back

141  Ev p.9; Annex Back

142  Ev p.32; p.69; p.102; p.120; Q7; QQ25-26; Q208. Back

143  See footnote 106 above Back

144  Ev p.7; p.32; p.77; p.26; p.84; pp. 43, 95, 119; p.152; p.153 Back

145  See paras 113 to 127 below Back

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