Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Eighth Report



  56. Written submissions to the Committee highlighted what have been characterised as confused and outdated regulations governing the disposal of the dead, based largely on past practice.[146] One particular problem is the lack of consistency of regulation because of the plethora of types of provider of burial space. Over time, cemeteries have variously been provided by the Church and other religious denominations, town, parish and district councils, and the private sector. Churchyards are still governed by ecclesiastical law, and a faculty (formal approval by the Chancellor of the Diocese on behalf of the Bishop) is required for changes to churchyards even when they are closed and being maintained by the local authority.[147] Statutory burial authorities are regulated by the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order of 1977 and the Local Government Act of 1972, although some 19th century legislation still applies.[148] Private sector cemeteries are governed either according to the specified Acts of Parliament setting up the company, or by the Cemetery Clauses Act of 1847. A shift in ownership from either private or Church to statutory authority is cause for substantial confusion as to the regulations that then apply.[149] In its submission, the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration note that crematoria operate to the same regulation, regardless of ownership; there is no reason why cemeteries should not be regulated in the same fashion.[150]

57. At the very least there should be some effort to bring under control the wholly unregulated expansion in 'green' or woodland burial services. This expansion is welcome in itself, as a response to public demand for new forms of memorialisation. However, we are concerned that some of these schemes may be risking the creation of a future maintenance problem similar to that which besets our cemeteries now as a result of short-sightedness in the nineteenth century.[151] Woodland cemeteries will continue to require maintenance long into the future: it is far from clear that, under current arrangements, such maintenance will be provided.

Closed churchyards

  58. Where a Church of England churchyard is closed to further burials in accordance with an Order in Council under the Burial Act 1853, responsibility for maintenance may at the request of the Church be transferred to the relevant local authority. The transfer is compulsory, not dependent on the condition of the churchyard in question, and not dependent on the local authority's ability to meet the additional maintenance costs.[152] In addition, the Church retains significant control over the management of the site (although the exact nature of that control is under current legislation unclear, with local and church authorities understandably reluctant to test it in the courts). Many local authorities are concerned with this obligation, particularly the difficulty of making proper budgetary provision.[153]

59. The Government defended the practice of transferring responsibility for such sites to local authorities, arguing

    This is a provision which continues a practice dating from the middle of the last century. It recognises that the Church of England has for centuries borne the burden of providing burial facilities for the community, that the Church of England, and parochial church councils, are not generally in a position to meet the costs of maintenance indefinitely, and seeks to return the maintenance burden to the community as a whole. However unwelcome such a burden may be for local authorities, they offer the only realistic source of funding, if the churchyard is not to become overgrown and fall into decay.[154]

It was similarly defended in oral evidence to the Sub-committee by Sheila Cameron, QC, then Chancellor of the Dioceses of London and Chelmsford.[155]

60. However, we have substantial reservations regarding the practice. As we were told during our visit to St Mary's Churchyard in Little Ilford, there is considerable confusion about the legal position and relative powers and responsibilities pertaining to closed churchyards.[156] This makes coming to a decision on the proper maintenance of such premises far more difficult than it need be. In some cases it imposes a substantial additional burden on hard-pressed local authorities, for which no extra provision is made in central Government grant allocations.[157] There is also a question of equity: although the number of burial grounds provided and maintained by other Christian denominations and different religious groups is not known, it seems to us anomalous and inequitable that they, too, should not be able to transfer responsibility for the maintenance of burial grounds once they are closed.

61. Responsibility for the maintenance of St Mary's Churchyard has been transferred to the London Borough of Newham under the legislative provisions referred to above. The churchyard contains two tombs and two gravestones which have had to be cordoned off for public safety. The Borough wishes to undertake work to make these monuments safe, but cannot afford to restore them fully. It was therefore proposed that the unsafe gravestones be laid flat, and the slabs on the top of the 'table-top' tombs be taken off and similarly laid on the ground, to ensure that they posed no danger to the public. However, despite the fact that responsibility for the maintenance of the churchyard lies with the Borough, a faculty has to be obtained from the Diocesan Chancellor (on behalf of the Bishop) for such work to be undertaken.[158]

62. When the Diocesan Chancellor came before us and was questioned on the situation at St Mary's Churchyard, she told us

    The Chancellor makes the decision ultimately but the Chancellor is advised by a body called the Diocesan Advisory Committee which has on it archaeologists and people who are interested in preserving old things. At the end of the day there has to be a balance, you are absolutely right, Chairman. If it came to me - and I must not pre-judge this particular case but I can tell you about other cases - my judgment would be that the important thing is to avoid danger. If the money is not available, they cannot get grants from English Heritage or other bodies to preserve old table top tombs, then you take the slab off, you put it flat on the ground and you dispose of everything else. You have to take a pragmatic and balanced and sensible view of these things. That would be the view that I would take and the view that my fellow chancellors would take.[159]

However, we have learned that the Chancellor's deputy - in the absence of the Chancellor herself - has subsequently refused the faculty for the work which the Borough wished to do. This means that the tombs can now not be made safe unless the Borough agrees to pay for the restoration work the Diocese wants.[160] We are surprised and disappointed at this judgement, which only serves to reinforce our conclusion that a review of the legislation pertaining to closed churchyards is urgently required.

63. However, even if the legislation is clarified, the essential problem remains that neither the Church, nor local authorities, currently have the resources to maintain burial grounds to consistently high standards. We hope, therefore, that an alternative solution may be found, allowing the Church itself to retake responsibility for currently 'closed' churchyards and generate income from them. We return to this subject below.[161]

Halting decline: existing solutions

  64. As we have demonstrated above, the problems facing cemeteries are serious. They are, however, far from insoluble. In this second half of our Report, we examine ways in which cemeteries might be restored to their former glory, and their long-term future assured.


Funding for maintenance

  65. Currently, the problem of how to ensure the long-term economic viability of cemeteries is a difficult one. Since the 1850s it has been illegal to disturb human remains without (as appropriate) a specific licence from the Home Office, a faculty,[162] or planning permission for redevelopment of the cemetery.[163] In addition, it is still possible to sell exclusive rights of burial for periods of up to 100 years, although it is now illegal for burial authorities to offer burial 'in perpetuity'.[164] Yet, as we note above, fees and charges for burial rarely reflect what is necessary to keep a grave and its surroundings in good order indefinitely. Indeed, this is hardly surprising, since to do so would tend to put burial beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy.[165] The problem is exacerbated by the failure of most local authorities - an understandable failure, perhaps, given the underfunding of this particular service - to put aside the income received from the sale of burial rights. Such income tends to have to be spent on current expenditure, thereby creating a serious problem for future local taxpayers.[166]

66. In the absence of a commitment by Government to the long-term funding of cemetery maintenance, it is difficult to see how cemeteries can be economically viable in the medium- to long-term, other than to ensure that fees and charges are set at a more realistic level. But pressures on local authority funding mean that the subsidies necessary in these circumstances to ensure the accessibility of burial to all who want it are unlikely to be forthcoming. In current circumstances, then, the choice is stark. Either burial becomes the exclusive preserve of the rich; or the current situation continues whereby cemetery managers charge only what they need to cover current expenditure, and more and more cemeteries fill up, close, and become a burden to local communities. Often cemeteries only remain viable because of subsidies from crematoria and from general council funds.[167] We do not believe that a significant rise in the cost of disposal of the dead would be acceptable to families on low incomes for whom the current cost can be difficult to meet.

67. Under current arrangements, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain cemeteries in a fashion fit and proper for the needs of the bereaved, and many are being left to fall into decay and neglect. The ever-increasing cost of the perpetual maintenance of graves risks raising the cost of burial to an unacceptable level. Crematoria cannot be expected to continue to subsidise cemeteries. A way must therefore be found for cemeteries to maintain a long-term source of income. We return to this subject below.[168]

Funding for restoration

  68. Long-term funding is, however, only half the story. The legacy of neglect in our cemeteries calls for an urgent injection of capital funding for restoration. Substantial help in this regard could be forthcoming from grant distributing bodies such as English Heritage and the National Lottery distributors.

69. English Heritage (EH) told us that it had had "considerable involvement" in the repair of cemetery structures, and had made grants ranging from the very large (such as that of over £200,000 made to the repair of important structures in Highgate cemetery) to more modest contributions as part of Conservation Area grant schemes. We return below to the details of what English Heritage has been doing with respect to cemeteries,[169] but, as far as funding is concerned, it is important to recognise that the grants available from EH are restricted to structures and cemeteries which are nationally listed or registered Grade II* or I. Many cemeteries of considerable importance to local communities are of course not listed or registered as of national significance, and so in financial terms there is little which EH can do for them.

70. This leaves National Lottery distributing bodies. We sought evidence from both the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has several grant programmes under which cemeteries could be funded, and the New Opportunities Fund, which is distributing £125 million under its Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities programme. The Heritage Lottery Fund has thus far spent £3.4 million on projects " mainly concerned with cemeteries".[170] Most of this money has been spent under the Urban Parks Programme, but it forms only a small proportion of the £220 million which has so far been spent on this programme - which sum, albeit welcome, is itself insufficient for the task of restoring our historic urban parks. The New Opportunities Fund, despite being set up in 1998, has yet to distribute any money.

71. The Heritage Lottery Fund displayed an encouraging attitude towards the funding of projects involving cemeteries, despite the relatively little which has been spent on them: they told us that the low levels of funding for cemetery projects reflected a low number of applications.[171] The New Opportunities Fund, however, showed less appreciation of the value of cemeteries to local communities,[172] and blamed the lack of emphasis on cemeteries in NOF grant-giving on the fact that they had not emerged as a priority during consultation. We believe that a substantial opportunity for the renovation of cemeteries is currently being missed. We therefore recommend that both the Heritage Lottery Fund and the New Opportunities Fund and its 'Award Partners' be more proactive in ensuring that appropriate applications come forward.

72. In this context we welcome the suggestion by the Heritage Lottery Fund that it place an article in its newsletter explaining what it has done for cemeteries.[173] We look forward to reading this article. We trust that the New Opportunities Fund will in due course be in a position to undertake a similar exercise. Other easily accessible means of advertising the help available from National Lottery distributing bodies targeted more directly at those concerned with cemeteries include the annual Joint Conference of Burial and Cremation Administration, the cemetery managers' professional publication The Journal, and publications directed to town clerks.

73. We recognise, however, that efforts made by the distributing bodies to advertise the help they can give to cemeteries will be to no avail if no-one takes them up. A significant barrier to the greater take-up of grants both for cemeteries and for the wide range of other projects which can be funded by both NOF and the HLF is the complicated application process. Jane Horton of Friends of Sheffield General Cemetery described it in evidence to us as "tortuous".[174] We strongly encourage all those concerned with the condition of their local cemetery - whether Friends groups, cemetery managers, or concerned members of the public - to investigate the possibility of applying for funding from appropriate National Lottery distributing bodies. If they are to be given the best chance of success, however, it is very important that the application processes for funding from both NOF and HLF be as easy as possible for voluntary groups to follow. In this context, we draw particular attention to the conclusions and recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee regarding the Heritage Lottery Fund's application procedures in its Report of 1999 on the HLF.[175]

74. Where the New Opportunities Fund is concerned, however, we believe that a further 'push' is needed. We were particularly disappointed at the slow progress of NOF's environmental spending. We are also disappointed that cemeteries did not emerge as a priority from its consultation on the 'green spaces and sustainable communities' scheme.[176] Nevertheless we are encouraged that a number of its Award Partners, through whom funding for this scheme will be distributed, have been involved specifically in projects involved in cemeteries in other circumstances.[177] We share the view of Mr Dunmore that there is potential both within the existing programme and within the forthcoming 'Transforming Communities' programme, upon which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is now consulting,[178] for substantial help to come forward.[179] For the benefits of NOF funding for cemeteries to be maximised, however, there needs to be enthusiasm for such projects from the top down as well as from the bottom up, and we therefore recommend that the Secretary of State direct the New Opportunities Fund to make cemeteries a specific funding commitment.

75. We have, finally, one important caveat regarding National Lottery funding, particularly that from the Heritage Lottery Fund. There is a strong temptation - to which, as we have already noted, DETR officials appeared to have succumbed - to regard cemeteries as essentially being covered by programmes concerning urban parks. This temptation must be avoided, not only because of the very significant differences between cemeteries and parks, but also because we would not wish to see grant-aid to historic cemeteries detract from the funds available for urban parks. The Urban Parks Programme has had a very beneficial impact on communities which otherwise would not benefit from HLF grants and is, we understand, already over-subscribed.

Local authority management of cemeteries

  76. The management of cemeteries by local authorities tends to be hampered by a lack of recognition of their particular needs. Important though cemeteries can be for recreation, we do not believe that their very particular contribution to quality of life sits appropriately within a 'Leisure Services' or similar portfolio, even where cemeteries are closed to further burials. The more progressive local authorities, such as Carlisle, are moving towards 'Bereavement Services' departments which can focus more directly on the particular demands of cemeteries in the context of their primary function: serving the needs of the bereaved.[180] Jane Horton of Friends of Sheffield General Cemetery described to us what difference the transfer of that, closed, cemetery from Sheffield's Leisure Services department to Bereavement Services made:

    ... Basically there was a feeling of defensiveness about the site and any suggestions we made about improvements to the site were met with 'we cannot do anything, we have not got the funds'. Embarrassment and defensiveness is how I would describe it. We continued to campaign and to do work informally with no management agreement on the site ... Eventually we realised that we were getting more support, or sympathy if you like, from Bereavement Services within the City Council than Leisure Services. The site was controlled by Property Services, managed by Leisure Services, who obviously mow all the parks in Sheffield, and all they were doing effectively was mowing, so when there was an unstable monument they would be more inclined to flatten it than to do anything else with it. Bereavement Services' attitude was different. We were getting good, useful advice from the manager of Bereavement Services and we asked for the control of the site to be shipped across from Leisure Services to Bereavement Services, and that happened two years ago. That has really helped our cause.[181]

We encourage those local authorities who have not already done so to consider whether their cemetery services might best be managed within a 'Bereavement Services' or similar department.

77. The evidence we received pointed to wide variations both in the priority given to cemetery provision and in the practice of cemetery maintenance across the whole range of burial authorities, from the large metropolitan authorities to parish councils. Some authorities accord cemeteries a high priority and provide an excellent service to their local population;[182] but in others cemeteries are very much an 'add-on' to existing services and, as we mention elsewhere, those in charge of them lack the necessary skills and expertise to ensure that the service is run in the most professional way possible.[183] This situation is not inevitable, even without greater prescription from central government. Whilst the priority to be given to cemetery services is properly a matter for local political decision, it seems to be the case that poor practices are more often a matter of ignorance than a result of deliberate neglect or policy decision.

78. The Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration is currently working on the publication of a handbook on good practice.[184] Once published, this handbook should provide a very welcome means of ensuring that all cemetery managers have access to good advice and guidance on how to do their job. We believe that sponsorship of this project by DETR would be a welcome demonstration of intent on the part of Government, and more importantly help to ensure that it receives the widest possible circulation. We welcome the intention of the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration to produce a manual of good practice for cemetery and crematorium managers, and we recommend that the DETR support this project.

Best Value

  79. A number of witnesses suggested that the Best Value process offered a way of focussing the attention of local authorities on the 'Cinderella' service of cemetery provision.[185] Best Value requires all local authorities to review and assess critically all their services, including cemeteries, over a five-year period, and to produce a 'best value performance plan' which sets out the authority's key aims and objectives and gives details of its past, present and future performance against targets. Following an authority's service reviews, inspectors from the Audit Commission test how good the service is, and how likely it is to improve.[186]

80. As part of the Best Value process, the Government has set performance indicators (BVPIs) for a range of local authority service areas, to facilitate comparisons between local authorities across the country. Unfortunately, no BVPI has been set for cemetery services. However, in addition to the statutory obligation to measure BVPIs, authorities are encouraged to set local performance indicators that reflect their communities' priorities. A number of authorities have elected to use cemeteries and crematoria performance indicators, under the broader heading of environmental services, as part of the best value framework. These cover issues such as the percentage of burials accommodated within five working days of notification; unit cost per burial (gross); and number of woodland graves pre-purchased, providing wider choice of interment options.[187]

81. A full list of these indicators, and the authorities using them, were provided to us by the Audit Commission, and can be found with the rest of the evidence submitted to this inquiry, or in the database of local performance indicators available at http://www.local­pi­[188] In addition, some local authorities have worked together to form benchmarking groups to compare service standards in cemetery provision. One such group has been has been formed covering much of Wales and a number of authorities in the South West of England.[189]

82. Separately from the Best Value process, the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration (IBCA) has produced a 'Charter for the Bereaved'. In order to become members of the Charter, burial authorities must show that they are able to meet 33 basic standards connected with funeral provision. The Charter also contains objectives for burial service provision, and helps authorities to set priorities for future development. IBCA told us, "Members of the public can be assured that an authority which has adopted the Charter is committed to providing excellent service."[190]

83. The Institute has also developed an Assessment Process which authorities can use to help prove that they are providing Best Value, and to use in conjunction with the Charter to form plans for improving the service. The Assessment Process provides the authority with a score and a ranking against other authorities, and, IBCA told us, "is a powerful tool for proving continuous improvement."[191] The Audit Commission noted that at least two authorities who have reviewed their cemetery services as part of the Best Value process did so alongside their application for the Charter, and described this as "helpful".[192]

84. The Audit Commission told us, "Although this service constitutes a minor area of local authority expenditure, it is one that impacts on people in a personal way at a highly sensitive time in their lives. The Commission's early work in this area suggests that good practice identified in partnership with the relevant professional bodies should be used to inform any minimum standards."[193] We therefore recommend that all local authorities conduct their Best Value reviews of cemetery services with reference to IBCA's Charter for the Bereaved; and that they aim to meet the standards of service set out in that document. Future Best Value Performance Plans should assess performance against these standards.

85. The Audit Commission also told us that they would be publishing a series of service specific documents on the theme of 'Lessons from Inspection', saying, "These publications will further improve our evidence base as to the critical success factors involved in delivering high quality public services."[194] We welcome this initiative, and we recommend that the Audit Commission publish in due course a 'Lessons from Inspection' document on cemetery provision.

Friends groups

  86. We received a number of memoranda referring to the positive role which has been played by 'Friends' groups, and similar organisations such as private charitable trusts, which have taken an interest - and in some cases control - of their local cemeteries.[195] There is also a National Federation of Cemetery Friends, linking together a number of individual Friends groups. The formation of these groups is in many ways a very welcome development. They can be the catalyst for significant action in the renovation and continued good management of a site, as we heard from Jane Horton of the Friends of the General Cemetery in Sheffield:

    [Our Friends group] has been fundamental to the cemetery. The cemetery fell into disrepair and serious trouble after the Second World War. ... They were running out of burial space in the 1950s. The cemetery company, and it was a commercial company that owned the cemetery, abandoned the site in the 1950s and it became an eyesore. It is very close to the city centre in Sheffield and it became an eyesore and was effectively abandoned. Following the take-up by the City Council, because they procured it from the company, the management of it was not there. We formed the Friends of the Cemetery in 1989 which was really a response to local community feeling about the terrible neglect of the site. We have been around since 1989 and since then we have basically whipped up a huge amount of local community support for the cemetery and we have a very, very active membership. We are now taking shared management responsibility for the site. If it was not for the work we are doing the site would still be in the same state that it was in in the 1960s and 1970s.[196]

We heard that Friends groups are often also enthusiastic organisers of new initiatives such as ecological and historical trails and educational schemes which enhance the value of the site to the local community.[197] We strongly encourage anyone concerned about their local cemetery to investigate the possibility of setting up a 'Friends' or similar group. Good practice on the formation of Friends groups should be disseminated both through conservation bodies, such as English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Civic Trust, the National Federation of Cemetery Friends, and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, and through those concerned with cemetery management, such as the Institute for Burial and Cremation Administration and the Confederation of Burial Authorities.

87. Some of our witnesses went further than simply welcoming the formation of 'Friends' groups, and in effect suggested that they were the answer to the regeneration of our cemeteries.[198] However, volunteers with the same degree of energy and enthusiasm as that displayed by Jane Horton and her colleagues are scarce. Where these exist, management of sites can be handed over to Friends groups, but overall responsibility for sites should remain with the community as a whole. We encourage local authorities to work constructively with local 'Friends' and similar groups, but stress that in doing so they should not seek to abdicate their own responsibility for the proper maintenance of cemeteries, both working and closed.

146  Ev p.20; p.27; p.42; p.54; p.56; p.59; p.87; p.89; p.110; p.120; p.173; p.199; pp. 201-202; p.215; Q144; Q341; Q512; Q539; Q556 Back

147  See para 58 below. Back

148  Eg. the Burial Acts of 1853, 1855, and 1857; the Cemetery Clauses Act 1847 Back

149  Ev p.84; Annex. See also paras 58-62 below. Back

150  Ev p.13 Back

151  Annex; ev p.38; Q348. Back

152  Ev p.83 Back

153  Ev p.83. See ev p.4; p.33; pp. 66-67; p.77; p.110; p.119; p.153; p.167; pp. 173-174; p.199. Back

154  Ev p.83 Back

155  Q289. Sheila Cameron has now been appointed Dean of Arches. Back

156  Annex Back

157  Ev pp.84-85 Back

158  Annex Back

159  Q292 Back

160  Annex Back

161  See paras 113-127 below Back

162  See para 56 above Back

163  Ev p.79; p.214 Back

164  Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order 1977 Back

165  See ev p.50; p.55; p.68; p.153 Back

166  Ev p.86; p.144 Back

167  Ev p.76; p.86 Back

168  See paras 113-127 below Back

169  See paras 88-96 below Back

170  Ev p.125. This does not include those projects where a small amount of work to a cemetery - or a green space which may once have been a cemetery - has been funded within a larger grant. Back

171  Q422, Q427 Back

172  Q412 Back

173  Q421, Q432 Back

174  Q94 Back

175  First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 1998-99, The Heritage Lottery Fund, HC 195,

paras 125-131. See also Fourth Special Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, The Heritage Lottery Fund: Responses by the Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund to the First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 1998­99, HC 386, paras xxii-xxv. Back

176  Ev p.179 Back

177  Ev p.181 Back

178  Ev p.179 Back

179  Q442 Back

180  Ev p.37 Back

181  Q79. See also ev p.73 Back

182  See, for example, ev pp.36-37; pp. 185-187; Annex; &c. Back

183  See para 43 above; see also paras 97 and 98 below. Back

184  Ev p.16 Back

185  Ev p.5; p.16; p.40; p.107; p.122; p.140; p.144; Q315 Back

186  Ev p.209 Back

187  Ev p.208 Back

188  Ev pp. 210-212 Back

189  Ev p.209. See also ev pp. 201-202. Back

190  Ev p.15 Back

191  Ev p.16 Back

192  Ev p.209 Back

193  Ev p.210 Back

194  Ev p.209 Back

195  Ev p.26; pp. 43-44; pp. 45-48; p.60; p.77; pp. 112-118; p.121; p.139; p.146; p.167; p.205; Ev not printed (National Federation of Cemetery Friends); Q85 Back

196  Q78 Back

197  Q87 Back

198  Ev pp. 47-48; p.60 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 2 April 2001