Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Restormel Borough Council, Cornwall (CEM 26)

  The Council has recently completed a Best Value Review of its cemeteries' service and a copy of the interim report of the Best Value Review is enclosed. A number of the Council's interim findings are relevant to the Select Committee's work on this issue and these are set out below. It is assumed that the Committee has been briefed on the legislative background of cemeteries provision so it has not been repeated here. However, a brief synopsis of the legislative position in respect of Parish and District Councils is set out in section 24 of the interim report.

  In Restormel the service provided by the Borough Council comprises three elements:

    (a)  Allocation of plots and maintaining records.

    (b)  Preparation of graves.

    (c)  Maintenance of cemeteries and closed churchyards.

  It should be noted that the Council only provides cemeteries in parts of the Borough. 20 are provided by the local Parish Council as the relevant Burial Authority.

  The Best Value Review showed that there was general satisfaction with the service provided by the Authority. Complaints are rare and graves are, virtually without exception, always prepared within the 48-hour target time set. The following issues are those which the Council feel it would be particularly relevant to draw to the Committee's attention:

    1.  Cemeteries are important locally and, although provided by a mixture of District and Parish Councils within the Borough, location is more important than who runs them. We did not find any support from our limited research for the provision of a centralised cemetery, say in St. Austell, even though it will be difficult to extend or replace some existing cemeteries within the relevant town or village. An example of this is Fowey cemetery, which has a limited lifespan left, but there is no suitable land available for an extension or replacement.

    2.  Curiously parish owned cemeteries within the Borough have plenty of spaces left. So far as the Borough's cemeteries are concerned, replacements will have to be found at Fowey and St. Austell.

    3.  The shortage of burial space suggests that consideration should be given to reducing the period before which re-use of burial plots can be allowed. The Borough Council currently leases its plots for a period of 100 years but national guidelines should perhaps be revisited and maximum and minimum periods set. This is a controversial issue for many people and may not be accepted by next of kin.

    4.  Fragmented ownership of cemeteries means that effective investment in, and supervision of, them are difficult. Within the Borough the cost of the service is currently heavily subsidised by the council taxpayer. 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.

    5.  As a result of this work the Council will be reviewing its charges for cemeteries. Currently the cost paid to the Authority is only a fraction of the total cost paid by the public for a funeral. For example the charge for an adult burial is £200 for the exclusive right of burial; £183 for grave digging and £28 for a monument, a total of £411. However the actual cost of the funeral could be at least five to 10 times that. Comparison with cremation charges show there is scope to overhaul our mainly historic charging system and levy more realistic rates.

    6.  Currently cemeteries and closed churchyards are subject to Business Rates. Money spent on Business Rates could be used to invest in the service and the abolition of Business Rates on cemeteries should be considered by the Select Committee.

    7.  A Cemetery Authority for the County as a whole, responsible for all cemeteries currently owned and operated by District and Parish Councils could produce substantial savings and a more consistent service. As the next stage of the Best Value Review the Council is currently considering the possibility of working with an adjoining District to provide the service. However, under current legislation, as the Burial Authority, it must retain responsibility for the cemeteries it currently operates even if the service is operated by a private contractor or joint local authority company or consortium. Is local authority control really necessary? Could the service be fully privatised or could ownership and maintenance be privatised and the maintenance of records retained in local authority hands? For Restormel Borough Council and I suspect most other local authorities, including the Parishes, the service will never be a corporate priority and will therefore never be more than an add-on to the work of departments involved in more main stream work.

    8.  Under current legislation once a cemetery or churchyard operated by the Parish or Parochial Church Council has been closed it can be transferred to the District Council which then has no choice but to take on the responsibility for its maintenance and upkeep. The cost of this has to be met exclusively by the local authority as no income is derived from any source other than the General Fund to support them. A number of issues arise:

      —  Costs are likely to rise steeply as a result of the need to ensure health and safety requirements are met, particularly in older cemeteries or churchyards with headstones which are in danger of falling over. These have to be surveyed and the cost of securing them is significant.

      —  Closed churchyards remain the property of the Diocese despite the fact the maintenance cost falls on the local authority. This is a rather odd and inequitable situation. It means:

      —  A fee of well over £100 has to be paid to the Diocesan Council before any work can be done by the local authority in a closed churchyard. As a result the Council has to pay for permission, for example, to survey a churchyard and then has no option but to pay for any works which are found to be necessary! This could be in respect of securing headstones but could also be to make trees safe etc. There is not necessarily a direct correlation between the population of a district and the number of churchyards within its boundaries. Inability to afford future maintenance costs is not a reason for an authority to object to a churchyard being closed.

      —  The future responsibility for closed cemeteries and churchyards should be considered closely by the Committee.

    9.  There is increasing interest in private and woodland burials.

    10.  Although the number of cremations in Cornwall appears to be constant further research needs to be done on the ratio of burials to cremations. This can probably only be done nationally as death rates in the borough do not correlate to burial and cremation rates because a significant number of people choose to be buried or cremated outside the district or county in which they live. This means some deceased residents of the Borough are buried outside its borders but conversely people are buried in the Borough who lived in another District or outside the county altogether.

Mrs Pat Crowson

Chief Executive

December 2000

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