Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Bristol City Council (CEM 65)


  Bristol is an old city with numerous prominent cemeteries, which have a great historic and cultural significance to the community. Bristol City Council is responsible for a total of eight operational cemeteries and 20 closed churchyards. There are also a host of small cemeteries attached to historically important churches in the city that remain the responsibility of the church. One privately owned cemetery in the City, Arnos Vale was opened in 1839 and is a good example of the importance of a cemetery to the community.

  As a City we recognise that we are fortunate to have Arnos Vale Cemetery, one of the first private cemeteries to be set up by act of parliament in 1837. It is included on the Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest as a grade II site. There are approximately 1,200 historic parks and gardens on the English Heritage register, compared with more than 500,000 listed buildings. This selectivity underlines the great importance of those historic parks and gardens that appear on the Register.

  Arnos Vale Cemetery was laid out between 1836 and 1840, and is one of the country's first metropolitan cemeteries. Like Kensal Green (1833), Highgate (1839) and others, it was created both in response to the overcrowding of existing city churchyard burial grounds and to take advantage of a perceived new business opportunity for the cemetery company's shareholders.

  Burials at Arnos Vale have continued to the present date and it contains over 40,000 burials that reflect the social history of Bristol over the past 160 years. It has a number of listed tombs and monuments, most important of which is the Grade 11* listed tomb of the Raja Rahomoun Roy, a great Indian thinker and humanist, who died on a visit to Bristol in 1834.

  Arnos Vale is a major green space (45 acres) in the centre of the City with considerable wildlife interest and amenity value as well as a place of remembrance and history.

  In 1988 when the private company that owned Arnos Vale threatened to close the cemetery 20,000 local people signed a petition against closure and lobbied Bristol City Council to intervene. Consequently Bristol City Council, with the support of English Heritage and the South West Regional Development Agency commissioned a feasibility study to identify viable options for the future of Arnos Vale. As part of the study extensive consultation was carried out with the local community. The final report recommended that Arnos Vale should be a place of remembrance, an historic park, and a learning and education resource for the City. With the support of Bristol City Council it is proposed a charitable trust is established to take on the responsibility for the day to day management of the cemetery.

  Arnos Vale is an example of historic cemeteries in cities, all of which provoke strong reactions from the community when threatened. Other historic cemeteries such as Highgate, Nunhead and Kensal Green have formed community partnerships to manage them. Cemeteries provide key green spaces in the urban environment and consultation can lead to a partnership to secure their future.

  The cemeteries owned by the council are also of considerable interest to the community. Together these cemeteries cover 145 acres and contain some 100,000 graves. Seven of Bristol's cemeteries were opened between 1871 and 1905 and are of considerable historic interest. There are many spectacular memorials particularly in the larger cemeteries at Greenbank, Avonview and Canford.

  A recent survey of Bristol City Council owned cemeteries highlighted their importance to the community for nature conservation. The report recommends that one site should be designated as a wildlife network site and one a potential site of nature conservation importance.


  Cemeteries have large maintenance costs in terms of maintaining chapels, depots, public conveniences, lodges, curtilage walls and miles of pathways.

  The maintenance of the thousands of memorials rests with the graveowners but this means that, in reality, very little maintenance is carried out and cemeteries frequently have an air of neglect and lack of care. Traditionally burial plots in the council's cemeteries were sold for a period of 75 years and during this period legal responsibility for maintaining gravestones rests with the owners.

  In today's society families are more mobile and more likely to move around the country and often live far away from family graves that they are responsible for maintaining. It is virtually impossible to determine ownership of the vast majority of graves and therefore the council is left to deal with the resulting problems as best it can. As the graves grow older there is often subsidence and fixings for headstones often fail after a number of years. A particular problem is older graves where gravestones and monuments have fallen into disrepair over a long period of time. This is true of many of Bristol's cemeteries by virtue of their age.

  A further major problem for cemeteries lies in the area of health and safety. Under the Occupiers Liability Act the Authority has a duty of care to ensure that cemeteries are safe for public use. If the owners neglect to maintain monuments or gravestones it is unclear where responsibilities lies for health and safety matters. Last year 800 gravestones were identified as being unsafe in Bristol City Council owned cemeteries and had to be laid down. In the current year a further 200-300 stones will be laid down for health and safety reasons.

  Arnos Vale Cemetery is a particularly good example of the problems that occur as a result of inadequate maintenance. As income levels fell the maintenance of both the grounds and the buildings declined, secondary woodland became established and a general air of neglect prevailed. In the 1980s attempts were made to clear the invading woodland, mostly ash and sycamore scrub, but the treatment was incomplete and today there are large areas of dense coppice regrowth. A number of changes in ownership of the cemetery and the closure of the crematorium have contributed to problems of management. The regeneration study commissioned by Bristol City Council calculated the initial costs of restoration at the site as £3.6 million and this figure does not include all the health and safety works that may need to be carried out. It is unclear who has the statutory responsibility for ensuring that cemeteries are properly maintained and managed.

  In addition to the eight cemeteries Bristol has responsibility for 20 redundant churchyards. These churchyards were declared closed by the Church of England and under current legislation responsibility for their maintenance was passed over to Bristol City Council. No additional resources are given to the Authority either by central government or the church to take on this additional financial burden. Often the churchyards have not been kept in good repair and there are currently no guidelines setting out standards of maintenance. The cost of the additional expenditure has to be found from existing local government budgets.


  The duties of a Burial Authority to provide and maintain cemeteries and to establish and administer crematoria are quite clear. In respect of crematoria the role of the Home Office also appears fairly clear. What is unclear however is who is responsible for the oversight of burial records?

  In Bristol for example we have a long-term problem with one of our privately owned cemeteries where the burial records are being kept in what the City Council believes to be unsuitable conditions. The conditions they are being kept in have led to their rapid deterioration over the past two years despite efforts by the City Council. The Authority has been working very closely with the Home Office to find a solution to this problem. The Home Office has a statutory role to ensure that cremation records are kept in good order and have used these powers to issue a Directive to the private cemetery company. The Directive stated that the cremation records should be stored in the Archives of Bristol City Council. The cost of decontaminating and restoring the cremation records was met by the City Council. Unfortunately neither the Home Office nor any other body seems to have a statutory responsibility in relation to burial records. These historic records which stretch back for over 160 years and form a unique record of Bristol's social history are rapidly approaching the point where restoration is no longer possible. If a solution to this problem cannot be found soon they will be lost to the City of Bristol forever. To what extent this problem is mirrored in other parts of the country is unknown but even the loss of the records in Bristol would constitute a tragedy.


  Although cremation is the first choice for many families in Bristol, around 20 per cent of families prefer burial. Indeed as an authority serving a multi-cultural and multi-faith community there will always be a core demand for burial land. In Bristol we are currently carrying out a study of the population and age profile of the City to try and quantify the need for burial space. Current provision focuses on the only two remaining facilities in the City, which still have space for burials, albeit one of these is rapidly becoming full.

  The indications are that local communities would like to have access to local cemeteries either for a coffin burial or the burial of cremated remains. Over the next two years research is planned to see if it would be possible to develop a number of small community cemeteries spread across the City. In a City the size of Bristol it is thought that there is sufficient demand to develop an additional three or four cemeteries. Each community cemetery would be no more than four or five acres. The current cremation facilities are adequate.

  There has been a growing interest in green/woodland burials that are felt to be more environmentally sustainable than traditional burials. Plots can be sold for shorter periods of time (30 years). As the cemetery develops, trees are planted and the cemetery changes and develops from a green open space to a small woodland park for the enjoyment of the community.


  The management and provision of cemetery services is currently split between local government and the private sector. Traditional cemeteries have only a limited lifespan for burials according to how quickly they become full. This causes problems for both local government and the private sector because without an income stream, where do the resources come from to continue to maintain them?

  Arnos Vale is an example of a large private sector cemetery, which because of the lack of burial space has not been able to produce a sufficient income stream to maintain the cemetery and it has gradually fallen into disrepair. Local government has similar problems on a far larger scale. Out of the eight cemeteries and 20 closed churchyards that Bristol City Council own, only two have space for new graves.


  There are a number of issues relating to the long-term maintenance of cemeteries. Maintenance of traditional cemeteries is very labour intensive and costly. Once the income stream is exhausted there is the problem of ongoing maintenance for a future indeterminate time period. Inevitably the original grave owners are no longer on the scene themselves and there is no one with an interest in the grave that is prepared to take on the ongoing financial commitment. Maintenance costs particularly in relation to Health and Safety can be very high. Cemeteries rely on the income from burials for their upkeep, once the cemetery is full they become an open-ended financial liability.

  As the local authority has the responsibility of being the burial authority this brings with it the added problem of cemeteries having to compete in competition for resources with other high profile services and departments, like education, social services etc.


  The committee is asked to consider:

  1.  Legislation should be examined to clarify legal responsibility for graves and monuments and extend local authority powers to allow neglected memorials to be removed during the term of grant;

  2.  extend the responsibilities the Home Office currently has for cremation records to include burial records;

  3.  the problem of how to turn the largely redundant cemeteries including associated cemetery buildings into an amenity asset for the community;

  4.  provide guidance on standards of maintenance of closed churchyards. Consider a formula for awarding additional resources to local government to meet the maintenance and restoration costs of closed churchyards passed to them under the Act.

December 2000

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