Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Harrogate Borough Council (CEM 47)


  The two main areas that I wish to focus on in this document are:

    —  the condition of existing cemeteries; and

    —  the roles and responsibilities of the DETR, and other Government Departments and agencies, in the management and protection of cemeteries and public policy on cemeteries and crematoria.


Why do we feel we are in a position to make comment and contribute to your enquiry?

  There are several reasons for this and I have listed these below:

    —  We are currently responsible for managing 10 cemeteries, 11 closed churchyards and one crematorium;

    —  We have had written Strategies for the management of this service since 1994;

    —  We have always had a policy of maintaining high standards throughout these services and this has been recognised by the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration (IBCA) who have designated us as one of only four training Crematoria in the Country;

    —  In July 2000 there was a tragic accident in one of our cemeteries which resulted in the death of a child and the legacy of this has changed the way we manage and maintain our cemeteries and closed churchyards in such a way that I feel it will be of benefit to yourselves to hear of our current situation when looking at these issues; and,

    —  We have undertaken a Best Value review of this service and some of the issues that were identified did not fit in with current government thinking and certainly did not address some of the issues that we have had to deal with since the accident.


  All the cemeteries and closed churchyards within the Harrogate District are regularly maintained. The grass is mown fortnightly, shrub and rose beds are well tendered, the paths are regularly swept etc. The buildings are all on a regular maintenance regime and are painted in colours in keeping with their surroundings. Consequently the cemeteries and closed churchyards are highly maintained, pleasant areas to visit irrespective of whether or not you are a relative visiting a grave, or someone just visiting in search of historical information etc.

  In addition we hold meetings with local interested parties such as Monumental Masons, Funeral Directors and the local Health Trust. We have also as part of our Best Value review undertaken considerable consultation with the local community. These have all confirmed that in the eyes of the users it is considered that we maintain and deliver the service to a high standard. We believe and strive to ensure that the standard is maintained and improved upon and reflects the needs of the users.

  As part of this process in 1998 we undertook a detailed financial analysis and introduced a financial plan with the aim of maintaining the high standard of service whilst working towards a break-even costing.

  In October 1999 as part of our continuing endeavour to provide a high standard of service a report was considered by the Leisure and Amenity Services Committee which looked at the increasing problem of memorial safety and how this matter could be tackled.

  The report considered Memorial Management and Safety in the Cemeteries and looked at the issues of risk; consultation; an ombudsman's report that had been published in May 1999 which had found against another Council concerned as a result of lack of consultation; what consultation we proposed to undertake; methodology for undertaking the survey; the legal position; financial implications and a five year programme for undertaking the survey work which had been put together following a Risk Assessment. The Risk Assessment was undertaken in order to identify areas where prioritisation should lie, and the decision was taken to utilise the following framework to determine the priorities.

    —  how frequently the cemetery or part of the cemetery is visited/used;

    —  the age and type of memorials in question;

    —  the approximate burial rate and usage of the cemetery;

    —  the size of the cemetery (number of memorials) in ratio to the preceding factors;

    —  the community access to the cemeteries, particularly children.

  The Ombudsman's report clearly highlighted the sensitive nature of dealing with memorials that were unsafe and resulted in costs against the Council concerned. Consequently, this was something that Harrogate Borough Council had to take into account when developing the policy and procedures for dealing with this issue.

  Work commenced in the first Cemetery on the programme in January 2000, and it soon became apparent that the problem was far more reaching than first thought and also was going to prove to be a lot more costly.

  This work only started to address the immediate issues of memorial safety within the legal confines we were having to work with. It did not look at the long term issues in relation to the types of memorials permitted, the management of monumental masons and how memorials were to be constructed in the future. This I will comment on later.


  On 7 July 2000 a large memorial approx 2 metres high toppled onto a six year old boy who was playing in the cemetery. Unfortunately this young boy was tragically killed by the memorial. This was a 99 year old, traditional type memorial, of single stone construction set on a stone base similar to those found in most cemeteries and closed churchyards throughout the Country.


  Discussion took place with the HSE who were only interested in ensuring that the cemeteries and closed churchyards that we were responsible for were made as safe as possible as quickly as possible. They were not interested in:

    —  the issues raised in the Local Ombudsman's report;

    —  the ramifications of taking drastic action and laying down memorials that were considered unsafe;

    —  public opinion when the cemeteries of Harrogate were effectively destroyed;

    —  the costs involved;

    —  who the memorials belonged to; and

    —  what the cemeteries of other authorities were like, and what actions they were taking to rectify the situation.


  Within the Harrogate District it has been established that there are approximately:

    —  9,850 memorials that are up to one metre in height;

    —  5,500 memorials that are between one metre and two metres; and

    —  1,000 memorials that are over two metres in height.

  There are many other memorials but these are predominately kerb types of only a few centimetres in height and are not considered to be of any major concern.

  Out of these our initial work has shown that approximately:

    —  30 per cent (2,955) of the memorials up to one metre in height;

    —  70 per cent (3,850) of the memorials between one metre and two metres; and

    —  20 per cent (200) memorials that are over two metres in height

are unsafe.


  After detailed discussions with the HSE it was clear that the way we had originally planned to undertake the work was considered by them to be unsatisfactory and they were looking for us to carry out a detailed survey of all the memorials taking whatever action was required to make them safe. Consequently a new revised two year programme was developed that dealt with the older larger type memorials within the first nine months and the remainder of the newer type in the following 15 months. This was backed up with an "Improvement Notice" issued by the HSE clarifying what we had to do and the timescales.

  The result of this was that we had to embark on the process of inspecting all memorials and laying down any that were considered to be unsafe. The estimated costs for undertaking this work over the two year period is £287,670. Obviously sourcing the funding for this work has proved to be very difficult for an Authority with very limited resources and other service areas will suffer as a result.

  The bigger issue is "What happens next". As you can imagine if such large numbers of memorials are being laid down then the whole character of the cemeteries in Harrogate are being drastically changed. Once all the memorials have been inspected and those that are unsafe laid down, there are several options available to the Authority to take as listed below:

    (a)  Leave the memorials as and where they are. Unfortunately, if this option were pursued then even though all the memorials have been carefully lowered and laid on timber putlogs to protect them it would look as though they had been pushed over and consequently they look very unsightly. In addition because they are all laying on the surface, many with their bases still attached, it will not be possible to maintain the grass around them to the same standards and consequently the overall appearance of the cemeteries will deteriorate considerably. In addition there may be other Health and Safety issues that would arise with them just lying on the surface. The benefit of this approach is that no further expenditure would be required.

    (b)  Alternatively the memorials could be buried in the grave space, or removed from site. It is estimated that these options would cost in the region of £250,000 to £500,000 and detailed estimates are currently being put together to establish this. This would be the most devastating of the options, particularly when considering the numbers of memorials involved (see above).

    (c)  A third option is to have all the bases removed from the memorials and have the stones laid flush into the ground. The benefits of this are that the cemetery is easily maintainable and the memorials and hence the inscriptions along with some of the historical values are maintained. The problem with this option is the potential cost and it is estimated that for this work to be undertaken may cost in excess of £500,000. Again detailed estimates are being sourced for this work to clarify this matter.

    (d)  The last option would be to re-erect the memorials. This is by far the most desirable of the options as it restores the cemeteries. The historical and cultural significance is fully maintained and the ambience and attractive nature of the cemetery is restored to an area of reflection. The difficulty for Harrogate Borough Council in trying to achieve this would be that it would cost in the region of £1,000,000 to carry out this work.

  Clearly there is not the funding for options (b) to (d) to be undertaken within the current budgets and consequently without financial help then the actions most likely to be pursued will be along the lines of that which enables the cemeteries to be regularly maintained and kept in a safe condition in the most cost effective way. Consequently, we anticipate that either option (a) will be pursued or (b) if further funding could be found. It may be necessary to source this funding through a reduction in the overall service provision. Whilst it is accepted that this will remove for ever many of the features of these areas and destroy the historical and cultural significance of them this authority will have little choice as we do not have the necessary funding available to undertake the more expensive yet desirable options available.


  Technically the memorials are the responsibility of the owners who are members of the public and not the local authority. However, experience has shown that it is often extremely very difficult to trace the owners if at all possible, and consequently the Authority has responsibility as land owner to ensure that the area is safe for anyone using the cemetery.

  Having said this there is little legislative guidance available to assist local authorities in establishing who is responsible for what and for how long. When considering memorials the deeds are issued to the individual family member so technically they are responsible for ensuring that the memorial is maintained and remains in a safe condition. However, that same memorial is fixed on land owned by others (the Local Authority) and consequently under the Workplace (Health and Safety) Regulation 1992, we have a responsibility to ensure that it is safe for all the staff who work there. However, exactly what all that means in legal terms is unclear and consequently local authorities are placed in a difficult position in trying to resolve issues relating to memorials on their land.

  Whilst referring to legislation I would also like to raise the issue of responsibilities for maintenance of closed churchyards. The legislation in this area is also very vague and does not make it clear who is responsible for maintaining what. It is further complicated by the fact that the Local Authority often has to take responsibility for maintaining certain areas which have been closed for burials in which many memorials have been erected on land owned by a third party (the church diocese). In these instances who is responsible for maintaining these memorials?

  Consequently, it would assist Local Authorities and any others who have responsibility for managing cemeteries and closed churchyards if this area could be made clear through new legislation/guidance.


  In Summary the main points that were agreed with the HSE were:

    (a)  The new risk assessment was a reasonable analysis and that the works should be undertaken on that basis.

    (b)  From the 1st November 2000 HBC would have a member of staff in post to carry out the function of memorial surveys. Their initial task would be to make safe all the memorials between one metre and two metres in height and have this work completed by the end of July (nine months). They would be supported by other Bereavement Services staff if time was available.

    (c)  HBC would employ external consultants to survey the memorials over two metres in height and this work would be undertaken in parallel to HBC's staff carrying out the survey to the smaller memorials.

    (d)  HSE would consult the Ombudsman regarding the new guidelines for memorial management and safety and the issue of consultation which clouded the issue.

    (e)  If HBC wrote separately and specifically to the HSE, they would through their policy section liaise with the Local Government Association and try to persuade them to become involved in advising all 450 authorities on cemetery safety and contribute to national guidelines.

  Points (a) to (c) have all been undertaken by Harrogate Borough Council and work is continuing in accordance with the programme. With regards to points (d) and (e) no feedback has yet been received from the HSE with regards to these matters and consequently no assistance has been forthcoming.

  This highlights a fundamental difficulty that we as an Authority have been having to grapple with. We are all aware that there was a serious incident that resulted in the tragic death of a child. Our record of management and our maintenance standards for the cemeteries clearly show that we see these areas as highly important and maintain them at a standard one would expect for areas such as these. We had recognised that there was an issue to address with regards to memorial safety and had even raised this issue with the HSE two years earlier. We had even put in place a programme for undertaking a survey of all the memorials in an environment where there was little or no National guidance to assist us. I feel this clearly shows our commitment to this part of the service.

  The biggest difficulty has been trying to get assistance form government agencies particularly the HSE.

  As mentioned above discussions were held with the HSE regarding this matter. We were advised that a draft document had been put together relating to the matter of memorial safety and that it may be possible to forward a copy. Unfortunately no copy was provided and we had to develop our own system. Then after the accident little guidance was forthcoming from the HSE. Again we were very much left to our own devices with regards to how we resolve the issue. Even now when issues are raised we get advised that it is not up to the HSE to tell us how to do it, it is up to us to determine that. I had always been under the impression that the HSE was an organisation that worked with others to improve on Health and Safety however it has become clear that they operate only as a regulatory body which in instances like this is no benefit for anyone.

  Since the accident there has still not been any circular sent to Local Authorities by the HSE notifying them of the potential risks and the need to undertake memorial surveys in their cemeteries. Meetings with colleagues in other authorities has shown that many have not been aware of the incident at Harrogate and of the need to undertake such surveys. This matter could have been driven through by the HSE and the Local Government Association in partnership to ensure that steps were taken to remove the dangers within cemeteries across the Country. Unfortunately this has not happened and it is only a matter of time before another accident occurs. As mentioned above the HSE did agree to undertake some liaison with other agencies but to date we have had no feedback on any progress made.

  Consequently, we do feel that there is a great need for Government Agencies to work together particularly in a sensitive area such as burial and cremation to ensure that advice is given to those managing these areas. Until now it seems that this has been very much a taboo subject with little or no guidance being issued. Consequently Local Authorities have had to manage them in the best way that they can. I would also add that it is vitally important for such agencies to work closely with the Institutes to ensure that when particular issues are looked at the overall implications on the service and more importantly the people that the service is provided for are fully appreciated. It is all too easy to focus on one particular area without being aware of the knock on effects and how that impinges on the bereaved.


  The issue of what happens in the future has still to be addressed. As an Authority we will be looking at the way we manage the Monumental Masons and also the techniques they use for fixing the memorials.

  In addition we will be looking at the options open to us to ensure that we do not have a similar problem with regards to memorial safety in future years. This could mean that we change the type of memorials we allow to those which are flat, similar to that used in some other European Countries. Obviously, if this approach were taken by this and possibly other Authorities then there will be a major cultural change in the way we bury our dead and erect memorials by which to remember.


    (a)  In Harrogate a memorial survey is being undertaken. Any memorials found to be unsfe are being laid down flat. This is decimating the cemeteries but following the HSE Improvement Notice we have no alternative.

    (b)  Memorials hold significant historical wealth, with dates and names. Therefore the cemeteries are a witness to the past. Conservationists see this as the heritage of the district with many memorials portraying a valuable background to local and regional history, and architectural and artistic significance. Without financial assistance many of those memorials will be lost for ever along with the cultural and historical significance that the memorials provide. To avoid this urgent core funding needs to be provided to address this issue, as we along with many other authorities are now undertaking work which will result in the loss of these memorials forever without funding being available.

    (c)  The legislation for who is responsible for maintaining memorials is unclear and as such when dealing with legal liabilities this matter needs to be clarified through a review of the legislation.

    (d)  DETR and other Government bodies need to take a more active role with managers of cemeteries of closed churchyards to assist in resolving many of the issues that arise. In doing so it is also important that they link in with the professional institutions to ensure all aspects are considered.

    (e)  What type of memorial is allowed in future may greatly change the way our cemeteries look resulting in the loss of a long cultural tradition.

    (f)  If required we can provide further evidence with regards to the points raised above and I would be more than happy to do so if requested.

January 2001

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