Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Plymouth City Council (CEM 48)

  Plymouth City Council is grateful for the opportunity to submit evidence to the Environment Sub-committee on Cemeteries. Plymouth City Council would wish to make the following observations:

  1.  The City of Plymouth has a population of just over 250,000 which is served by five local authority cemeteries, and two local authority crematoria. The crematoria are situated within the two main cemeteries. There is one private sector cemetery and one operated by a Charitable Trust. Plymouth is fortunate in having adequate capacity for future burials, ranging from 15 to 30 years according to which cemetery. Although Plymouth has this capacity it is anticipated that problems will still arise as families have strong familial preference for which cemetery is used. Therefore when one of the main cemeteries is full we will not be able to meet out customer expectations. The growing trend has been towards cremations, and there has also been significant increase in demand for memorialisation both of cremated remains and of deceased persons. The following points are of interest and concern:

    —  Notwithstanding the adequacy of space for burial within the City of Plymouth, it is recognised that the issue of the re-use of graves must be addressed. Currently, most sales are with 25 years leases, but historically the tradition was for freehold graves to be sold. Over the years the dispersal of families has meant that these graves are not attended, visited or maintained by the family. We are aware that in most urban areas burial space is extremely scarce and therefore consideration must be given to legislation to enable burial authorities to re-use graves. Any proposed legislation must ensure that the burial authority has the correct legal power to take over the freehold, remove kerbing and headstones, and use the space. Should this be necessary then a strict procedure should be included either in the regulations or in a Code of Conduct to ensure that graves are only re-used where the burial authority is satisfied that the grave has not been attended for more than 25 years, due enquiries have been made to trace relations, and notice in local newspapers has been given. In addition, it is suggested that the burial authority should make provision for due records to be kept for inspection by subsequent families and that a form of memorialisation should be arranged. The headstone should be preserved and displayed in another part of the cemetery. The burial authority should be free to dispose of kerbstones etc. The re-use of graves is an extremely sensitive issue and it is essential that strict guidelines are set out and adhered to by authorities.

    —  The income from the crematoria in Plymouth subsidises the operation of the cemeteries, and with local authority finances often finances often severely restricted, local authorities can find it difficult to maintain their cemeteries to a high standard. It would be helpful, in order to help with maintaining the grounds, for the powers of a local authority to remove kerbstones on graves both freehold and leasehold to be clarified and codified.

    —  Plymouth charges for burials are about mid range for local authorities, however, it is noted that the burial grant does not fully cover the cost of a burial including the undertakers charges. Care should be taken to ensure that all families, particularly those disadvantaged, should have the financial capability of a respectful and proper funeral for their family.

    —  Burial authorities should ensure that provision is made to meet the needs of ethnic minorities.

    —  Particularly once burial space is used up, a cemetery will be a liability but would also offer the greatest potential for environmental improvements, including the use of wildflower meadows and habitats to ensure wildlife species. Grants should be made available to burial authorities to encourage and finance such schemes.

  Plymouth City Council has also had experience of issues involving both Churchyards and private cemeteries. It is considered that the following may prove useful to the enquiry.

    —  Ford Park Cemetery: Early in 1999 the Plymouth Devonport and Stonehouse Cemetery Company, which has operated the Cemetery by private Act of Parliament since 1846, went into liquidation. Then followed extreme public concern culminating in one of the biggest public meetings ever seen in the City concerned about the future. The Cemetery Company had been in financial difficulty for some years, primarily due to the sale of freeholds many years ago and the lack of new land for burials. The Cemetery had been in a very poor state of repair and maintenance, and was extremely overgrown. This had been causing great concern to local people, both visitors to the Cemetery and those living around its perimeter. At one stage it was likely that the Cemetery would pass to the Crown Estate Commissioners who would not carry out any maintenance or accept any liabilities associated with the cemetery. Plymouth City Council therefore faced the prospect of either the gates being locked to prevent access or visitors having uninterrupted access but with no maintenance or safety provisions being made. This was of great concern, particularly in view of the age of the likely visitors. Fortunately Plymouth City Council, in conjunction with the local newspaper, found enough people to form a Charitable Trust, which has now gone on to become a company limited by guarantee to take on the ownership of the Cemetery and secure voluntary labour and donations. The legislation relating to a private cemetery company and the burial authority is obscure and complex. Counsel's opinion was sought, which did not clarify the position. It is clear, however, that if the local authority had taken over the operation of the Cemetery then its annual costs were estimated to be well in excess of £100,000 and would have meant reduction in services in other parts of the Council. A process by which Plymouth City Council could have taken over the Cemetery was also unclear, and specific concerns were expressed over liabilities and the statutory duties with relation to freeholds and claims. It is an important part of society that families should be able to visit their loved ones without hindrance and in safety, and that society should maintain cemeteries and churchyards in a respectful state. It is likely that other private cemetery companies will be facing the same position, and therefore Plymouth City Council feel that there ought to be a statutory procedure to be followed in these cases to facilitate the taking on of this operation by either a burial authority or a Charitable Trust.

    Finance should be made available by central grant to burial authorities for these duties and access to funding for Charitable Trusts should be obtainable potentially through the lotteries commission. Ford Park Cemetery stretches over 34 acres and contains 250,000 people. The Cemetery was designed to serve the needs of the three original towns of Plymouth and therefore contains most of the history of Plymouth. Its overgrown nature has made it into a nature reserve. Unfortunately a large area of the Cemetery has now been infested by Japanese Knotweed and it is understood that this has become a problem in a number of cemeteries and churchyards. Unless prompt action is taken Japanese Knotweed will take over the Cemetery and spread into surrounding properties, and therefore it is suggested that specific grants be made available to tackle this very difficult problem.

    —  Plymouth City Council has now become responsible for four closed churchyards under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. The churchyards were passed over after the agreement for closure by the Home Office, and generally have been in a very poor state of repair, maintenance and safety. In particular, there are major structural liabilities with old random stone boundary walls and unstable high headstones. This issue has been the subject of correspondence with the Home Office and the Local Government Association as Plymouth City Council finds itself in the difficult position of having no choice but to take on these closed churchyards but not having the necessary resource in order to properly maintain them. Although the local community may be prepared to tolerate poor grounds maintenance when it belongs to a Church, when a local authority takes over control their expectations are raised significantly and churchyards are often the cause of complaint to this Authority. Plymouth City Council believe that churchyards should belong to the community and the Church, and therefore grants be made available to the Church Authorities for their upkeep, maintenance and repair. Once the community loses interest in its churchyard then the dangers of vandalism increase significantly. Plymouth is also responsible for one Dissenters Cemetery, whereby no ownership could be found and therefore the local authority has taken over its ownership and operation. This happened after many years of complaint regarding neglect and overgrown grounds. Local Authority resources are always under considerable pressure and therefore it is essential that correct financing is made available and clear procedures are given in order to ensure that graveyards are able to be maintained in a respectful and proper manner.

  Cemeteries and graveyards often present green lungs within developed urban areas, and therefore their potential for quiet recreational spaces should not be under-estimated. Again the potential for protecting wildlife and wild flowers should be recognised within a very carefully managed setting. Grants for specific projects in these areas should be made available to burial authorities, private companies and Church authorities. Similarly, most burial grounds are full of local history, which largely is not made obvious due to the haphazard layout of cemeteries. The potential therefore exists for projects to take students on guided tours illustrating the famous or important history within that locality. This is of growing importance as can be seen by the growth in public interest in genealogy.

  Combined projects with new forms of management, supported by grants therefore offers great opportunity for community and public interest in cemeteries. It should be noted that public reaction to death and burials has been changing, and at a recent meeting with the undertakers and clergy it was apparent that their customers are now expressing a significant decline in interest and commitment to burials and the maintenance of graves.

  Undertakers are reporting increasing amounts of bad debts after funerals. In this light it is even more important that cemeteries and churchyards are seen as a community resource belonging to the community.

December 2000

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