Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the London Borough of Newham (CEM 107)


  The London Borough of Newham is responsible for West Ham Cemetery, the only municipal cemetery within the borough. Within Newham there is the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park, East London and Woodgrange cemeteries as well as Jewish cemeteries at West Ham, Manor Park and East Ham.

  West Ham Cemetery is approximately 22 acres in size with many hundreds of graves featuring elaborate Victorian headstones connected to stone kerbs. New graves are a modified lawn grave type; edging stones delineate the border of the graves and the grave surface may be planted with flowers. The cemetery is virtually full and the majority of new burials take place within re-opened family graves or previously reclaimed graves.

  West Ham Cemetery has one full time cemetery administrative officer and three full time grounds' maintenance staff.


  Many cemeteries are important havens for wildlife; even small cemeteries can be of great nature conservation value particularly in urban areas where parks may be the only other source of greenspace. Cemeteries can often be better than parks for conservation as there is greater scope to strike a balance between function and the needs of wildlife. In addition, cemeteries contain monuments intended to commemorate and praise the dead in perpetuity and such memorials can often be fine examples of architecture.

  This is demonstrated by several cemeteries and churchyards in London being upon the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest maintained by English Heritage.

  Active management for nature conservation does take place in a number of cemeteries. St Mary Magdalene churchyard in East Ham is one example, where the grounds are managed by London Borough of Newham as a nature reserve with an interpretation centre and educational staff.

  Cemeteries are an undervalued environmental resource that could provide a potential route for the involvement of communities in the Local Agenda 21 process, contribute to tourism and add to the value of a neighbourhood positively affecting property values.

  In, what is increasingly, a secular age it is easy to underestimate the cultural significance of cemeteries. However virtually all members of society will, at some time, visit a cemetery for a funeral and many of the bereaved will regularly visit for contemplation and the remembrance of the dead. Cemeteries therefore play an important part in the formalisation of loss and inevitably reflect the religious and artistic disposition of prevailing cultures. Cemeteries provide a resource of real importance to local people and can have a positive impact upon community spirit.

  In recognition of the environmental and cultural significance of cemeteries there needs to be a widening of roles for cemetery staff from simply managing the site to include supporting the popular interest in family history tracing, working with schools, promoting environmental awareness and conservation and encouraging community involvement including facilitating "friends of . . . " schemes for cemeteries.


  The standard of maintenance and of operations of cemeteries varies widely and this applies both to the private and public sectors. Underfunding is, however, a relatively common theme. Maintaining a cemetery can be expensive; the costs of grounds maintenance, management of memorials and repairing paths, fences and walls can be substantial. The problem is particularly significant for cemeteries that lack a crematorium facility and so cannot obtain "cross-subsidy".

  Although improvements in standards are encouraged by organisations such as the Confederation of Burial Authorities (CBA) and the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration (IBCA) there are insufficient compulsory standards and no effective enforcement. Newham council regularly receives complaints about the condition of a private cemetery within the borough. There are obviously expectations from the public and they are disappointed to discover that the council has only limited control under current legislation.

  Shortage of burial space is a major problem, particularly in the London area. This will lead not only to a reduction in choice, London residents having to travel outside the capital for funerals and to visit graves, but will also result in the inevitable decline of cemeteries. Fewer burials will reduce income and less resources will lead to a deterioration in the condition of a cemetery. This is a vicious circle that will eventually result in a working cemetery, with regular visitors, becoming a neglected site that detracts from the local environment rather than enhancing it. This problem can be partly addressed by the proposal of `re-use' where existing graves over 100 years old can be re-cycled, where there are no objections from the families of the deceased.


  I have mentioned above inadequate standards and the lack of effective enforcement concerning the condition of cemeteries. It is vital that the importance of cemeteries to society is recognised and championed by government. A central body is required to co-ordinate planning, set quality standards, audit cemeteries; progress options for funding and develop national policy. Such a body could be modelled upon a number of central agencies, the Food Standards Authority for example, and involve all recognised and relevant organisations in the process. A central organisation could co-ordinate and supervise a system of inter-borough audit, a technique that has been both successful and cost effective in the assessment of food safety and housing enforcement.

  The council has a legal obligation to undertake maintenance in closed churchyards under the Local Government act 1972. This is a difficult area for many local authorities as budgets can be insufficient. The extent of this responsibility is not clearly defined under the legislation and is complicated by the fact that the churchyard remains under the control of the incumbent and is subject to the control of the bishop's consistory court. This would enable the church to veto proposals for maintenance by the local authority without the responsibility of contributing financially to their preferred scheme. In addition, further closed churchyards could be transferred to the local authority upon an order in council with no additional allowance in the Standard Spending Assessment. This will mean either low standards or cost cutting in other areas of service provision, a problem that would be exacerbated if the churchyards were in a state of dilapidation. A review of the legislation would be welcomed to more precisely define the responsibilities and liabilities of both the local authority and the church and to consider the option of enabling the local authority to refuse the transfer of a churchyard in poor state of repair.


  The current approach to long term planning is uncoordinated and diverse with each local authority pursuing (or not pursuing) individual policies. A legal duty placed upon local authorities to ensure adequate burial provision within their own area coupled with a central body to co-ordinate planning would address this problem. Future planning of burial provision must take account of changing public attitudes and new initiatives such as relatively low maintenance woodland burial and also encourage the involvement of the voluntary sector and religious organisations.

  Planning and any future duty upon a local authority to ensure burial provision must take account of the scarcity of suitable sites for cemeteries in inner London and the high cost of land. Large-scale creation of new cemeteries in London in the long term will be a major challenge. This means that legislation to enable the controlled recycling of graves for re-use is vital to alleviate the lack of burial space in the medium term. This was proposed within the report `Planning for Burial Space in London' by the London Planning Advisory Committee in 1997. In addition, the existing powers within London to reclaim vacant space within graves under the Local Authorities Cemeteries Orders of 1974 and 1977 should be extended to cover local authorities outside the capital.


  I have already mentioned above the variable standards of management and provision that may be found in both public and private cemeteries. Although the CBA and IBCA have acted to encourage improvements a national central agency is required. This should set quality and performance targets, establish safety standards, disseminate good practice, set indicatory charging scales, develop national policy and co-ordinate the planning of burial provision. This agency could also develop and require the application of integrated cemetery management plans, that take account of the local environment, conservation, safety and the expressed needs of users and the local community.

  A review is required of the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1997, the principle legislation relating to the management of cemeteries. Input from all interested and relevant parties should be sought and legislative amendments should encourage choice in burial and in memorialisation, support flexibility to take account of local conditions and community requirements and set a maximum term of 50 years for the sale of burial rights to maximise burial capacity.


  Underfunding of cemeteries is a common problem as local authorities are faced with pressures to closely control expenditure and have to resolve conflicting priorities for funding. In Newham, for example, there is an understandable political priority for education and social services. The significance of cemeteries therefore need to be promoted by government and the cemetery service needs within the authority must be taken into account when the level of central funding for the authority is decided. Standard setting by a central, national agency could also help cemeteries received greater precedence at a local level.

  At present the existing sources of funding for initiatives such as historical conservation are disparate and developmental funding is often not available. For example, match funding for projects is of relatively little value for a cemetery with a small budget. It will be necessary for government to disseminate good practice and co-ordinate funding for cemeteries. In addition the objectives for lottery funding could be reviewed to take into account the case for increased spending upon cemeteries to preserve and enhance the local environment.

  As well as searching for funding it will be necessary to examine new ways of cemetery management including partnerships, community ownership, charitable trust status, or sites becoming nature reserves as low-cost public space.


  The main points for future action from my submission may be summarised as follows:

    —  The government needs to recognise the significance of cemeteries and champion their continuation as an integral part of the framework of society.

    —  A central, national, agency is required to set quality and performance targets, audit cemeteries, develop national policy and co-ordinate the planning of burial provision.

    —  In order to function effectively cemeteries require adequate funding. Central government should give greater emphasis upon cemetery needs when setting the Standards Spending assessment for the local authority and should co-ordinate central action for improved funding and review lottery funding objectives.

    —  A review of current legislation regulating the operations of cemeteries is required to encourage choice, innovation and maximisation of burial spaces. The proven shortage of burial space, particularly in London, makes amendments to enable the re-cycling of graves vital.

    —  A review of the legislation applying to the maintenance of closed churchyards is required in order to clearly define the responsibilities and liabilities of both local authorities and the Church of England.

Russell Bryan

Service Unit Manager

January 2001

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