Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 75-102)




  75. Can I welcome you to the second session this morning. Could I ask you to introduce yourself to the Committee.
  (Ms Horton) My name is Jane Horton. I am the Secretary of the charity which is called the Friends of the General Cemetery which looks after a historic cemetery in Sheffield.

  76. Do you want to say anything more by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight into questions? We have got your evidence.
  (Ms Horton) I would like to contextualise it a little bit more, if that is okay?

  77. Yes.
  (Ms Horton) The context of our cemetery is quite different from the previous two speakers. Fundamentally it is a disused cemetery, and that is an important starting point, and therefore it has particular issues that are to some extent exacerbated by the fact that we do not have any kind of income from burial. Secondly, the management of that cemetery differs as a result of that. It is a historic cemetery which gives it other issues as well because it has got a lot of listed memorials in it and a lot of historic monuments in it.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Mrs Ellman

  78. What difference would you say the formation of your group has made?
  (Ms Horton) It has been fundamental to the cemetery. The cemetery fell into disrepair and serious trouble after the Second World War. It actually had a couple of direct hits in the Second World War. They were running out of burial space in the 1950s. The cemetery company, and it was a commercial company that owned the cemetery, abandoned the site in the 1950s and it became an eyesore. It is very close to the city centre in Sheffield and it became an eyesore and was effectively abandoned. Following the take-up by the City Council, because they procured it from the company, the management of it was not there. We formed the Friends of the Cemetery in 1989 which was really a response to local community feeling about the terrible neglect of the site. We have been around since 1989 and since then we have basically whipped up a huge amount of local community support for the cemetery and we have a very, very active membership. We are now taking shared management responsibility for the site. If it was not for the work we are doing the site would still be in the same state that it was in in the 1960s and 1970s.

  79. Would you say you get support from Sheffield City Council?
  (Ms Horton) The support has been very slow in coming but it is there now. When we first started our group I personally went to the City Council and asked "what are you doing about this site?" and the suggestion came back "why do you not form a Friends group?", which was a great constructive start, however following from that we got very little support from the Council. Basically there was a feeling of defensiveness about the site and any suggestions we made about improvements to the site were met with "we cannot do anything, we have not got the funds". Embarrassment and defensiveness is how I would describe it. We continued to campaign and to do work informally with no management agreement on the site. We have been on that site and doing work for the last ten years or more. Eventually we realised that we were getting more support, or sympathy if you like, from Bereavement Services within the City Council than Leisure Services. The site was controlled by Property Services, managed by Leisure Services, who obviously mow all the parks in Sheffield, and all they were doing effectively was mowing, so when there was an unstable monument they would be more inclined to flatten it than to do anything else with it. Bereavement Services' attitude was different. We were getting good, useful advice from the manager of Bereavement Services and we asked for the control of the site to be shipped across from Leisure Services to Bereavement Services, and that happened two years ago. That has really helped our cause. The other thing that helped our cause was the advent of a new Chief Executive at Sheffield City Council who has been effectively very sympathetic towards our group and our work.


  80. Basically if they flatten gravestones, what happens when you say there is a more sympathetic approach, does that mean someone has to go and reset the gravestone so it is safe?
  (Ms Horton) Yes, it does. We have many interesting monuments in the cemetery but there was one in particular that was very frequently visited by people because it was of historic interest. It was a Chartist martyr who died on the treadmill at York Prison. It was a very frequently visited grave and is surrounded by the graves of his comrades. All the graves in that area were leaning over very sharply and we were very concerned that members of the public were walking through to get to this grave when all of them were leaning over. So we spoke to the manager of Bereavement Services and agreed with him which set of six monuments needed to be put right and they have the staff who have the skills who know how to put monuments straight again. It was not an expensive operation in this case, they did not need to bring in heavy duty gear to do that, but simply reinforced them, pulled them back upright and pushed material in to stabilise the monuments at the base. There has been a lot of very positive feedback from that small piece of work.

Mrs Ellman

  81. Why would you say Sheffield Council gives this less priority than other parks?
  (Ms Horton) Sheffield Council has more green space as a city than any other city in the country, I believe. It has got lots and lots of parks and, therefore, there is competition for funding for parks for a start. I think a cemetery is a lot less glamorous than a park as a place to have a development project. For example, the Botanical Gardens in Sheffield, also a historic park, and only a few minutes walk from the General Cemetery in Sheffield, has just received considerable sums of Heritage Lottery funding for its restoration. People use that for recreation much more than the cemetery, it has to be said, it is in a pretty wealthy part of Sheffield, while the cemetery sits in what is an extremely deprived part of Sheffield I should say. Not in contradiction to what Dr Hussein said but as a supplement to it, I do think there is still a slightly embarrassed view about death. If I say "this is what I do", for example, people do tend to look at you in astonishment, "are you morbid? Have you got a morbid interest in death?" There is still sometimes a slightly jokey response to the work that you do, but I also think that it is regarded as a problem, it is a problem zone, so let us keep off it, let us stick with the parks which are easier to manage and easier to come up with ideas about putting cafes in them and it is less troublesome because if you start putting cafes in an open area of a cemetery you are going to have relatives on your back. I think the attitude has been "let us leave it alone".

  82. Have any proposals been suggested for developing the site as a heritage site?
  (Ms Horton) Yes. The context is that in 1978, as did happen in other parts of the country, the cemetery was closed by Act of Parliament. It was closed for burial, which meant no further commercial use could be made of it from those quarters, and the council proceeded to demolish half the cemetery, they bulldozed half the cemetery. So half of the historic fabric of the cemetery has now gone. Thank goodness the area that was kept was the more historic area, if you like, the original cemetery which was opened in 1836. That means we have got half of the cemetery which is effectively a green space and it is a park that is used by footballers and dog walkers principally, and joggers. The other half is a historic site which is used by people for walking around, historic interests and so on. As far as putting forward plans for its restoration, we as a group are the people leading that and what we are doing is submitting a bid to Heritage Lottery Fund this week for the restoration of the gatehouse which will have a warden in one side of it, which we will get funding for, and on the other side an office for the Friends which will mean there will be a security presence on the site, there will be a focus for our group which will mean there will be a focus for our educational activities, our volunteer workers and all the activities that happen on the site. That is the first stage of the project. We plan to move on to other buildings on the site if and when that is successful and hopefully develop those buildings too. An adjunct to that is that we hope to open a memorial garden to get some revenue back into the site. That will not be for burying ashes because we have had lengthy debates with lawyers about whether or not we are able to bury ashes on the site and it has been decided by Sheffield City Council that we may not bury ashes on the site because it was closed by Act of Parliament for burial. Consequently, we can scatter and we can put memorial plaques up but that gives us particular issues because it is a historic site and we do not want to put plaques on the site, so we are putting them in a building. That will give us some kind of revenue stream. We will also be hoping to get revenue streams through taking, for example, the mowing contract from the council to bring us in revenue for the site as a group.

  83. Who are the other partners and supporters in your proposal?
  (Ms Horton) It is the Friends of the General Cemetery's proposal, but with support from Sheffield City Council.

Mr Donohoe

  84. Where else in Sheffield is there the same sort of co-operation? Are there any other groups similar to yours?
  (Ms Horton) Yes. I do not know what it is like in other parts of the country but there are lots of Friends of Parks groups: there is a Friends of the Botanical Gardens, there is Friends of Meersbrook Park, for example.

  85. Friends of other cemeteries?
  (Ms Horton) Yes. There is a National Federation of Cemetery Friends which has, I am not sure how many members but there is a lady behind me who would know. Twenty-five members. The Friends groups are very varied in terms of their success, if you like, and in terms of their activities. Some of them have been highly successful, like, for example, Abney Park Cemetery in London, Stoke Newington, they have an extremely successful project going, as do Nunhead Cemetery, York Cemetery Trust, for example, they are very successful groups, some of them with no support from City Councils, others with limited support.

  86. Within Sheffield itself are there any other groups similar to yours that are looking after cemeteries? Is Sheffield trying to adopt this as a way forward?
  (Ms Horton) I think the Bereavement Services' manager would very much like that to happen, but the trouble is as far as I know there is only one other Friends of group for a cemetery in Sheffield and that is much smaller. We have the advantage that we have got the most historically interesting cemetery in our hands and that was why our group was formed in the first place. I do not think there are any Friends of groups for any of the other cemeteries, but that would be useful.

  87. What do you think the Friends of Cemeteries themselves could realistically achieve if they were to be set up? What lessons would you have to tell others who are thinking of doing the same thing?
  (Ms Horton) I think that because for the most part they are run by volunteers it really does have to depend on the particular interests, energies and enthusiasms of volunteers. I am a volunteer. I actually have a full-time job but I am so enthusiastic about history, heritage and this site and its place in the urban community that I put in a lot of time on this project. I believe that groups will take different focuses. Some people will focus on education work with schools, that is one of our focuses because we are mostly educationalists who are involved in the project. Other groups may be more interested in the conservation work, creating habitats for wildlife and so on and so forth. We are lucky as a group that we have been able to get funding for a full-time paid worker which has meant that we have been able to lever the support and aid of volunteers, long-term unemployed people from the local area, and we are also fortunate that we are in an Objective 1 zone because of the level of deprivation. So we can act as a channel for funding that the City Council would find it more difficult to get their hands on.

  88. What about the council itself, what more can it do to assist you?
  (Ms Horton) What, in the cemetery?

  89. Yes. In terms of trying to promote this, what could they do?
  (Ms Horton) I think one thing they could do is provide better channels of communication and access to appropriate skilled and experienced staff within the council. It was extremely difficult for us in the early days even to get somebody to talk to us on the phone, let alone a site visit. We have very ready communication channels now with Bereavement Services but I believe that should be strengthened and that is something that as a matter of course should be given to Friends groups across the country. Secondly, Friends groups should have, I am not saying major funding but I think they should be funded by City Councils. We get a grant of £500 a year from Sheffield Council and we do by far the most significant work on site. We have to get our funding from elsewhere. We have grants from the Northern Rock Foundation, Lloyds TSB and Heritage Lottery.

Mr Blunt

  90. Can I ask you about urban regeneration because you said where the cemetery is is in a depressed area of Sheffield.
  (Ms Horton) Yes.

  91. From your experience what role can this cemetery and other cemeteries play in urban regeneration?
  (Ms Horton) Many cemeteries are in deprived areas of cities and ours certainly is. What we do, and I believe we could be doing a lot more of, is acting as a channel, as I have said, for funding but also for the promotion of skills development and training for long-term unemployed people and for disabled people. We have an office where we have many volunteers coming along. We carry out work with people on their reparation orders, for example, with probation officers. There are lots and lots of different types of activities and work and skills development that can take place. It is not just on the site, it is off the site too. We are developing a database of burial records, for example, that is IT skills development. There is a lot of work that can be done in terms of creating training and employment opportunities for local people.

  92. The existence of the cemetery in this area, which is an area available for development which was obviously spotted historically by Boden Developments in the 1960s who bought the site and then failed to develop it, what weight should be attached to the fact that here is a large area of land in the middle of a depressed area that could be a major source for urban regeneration in a wholly different direction?
  (Ms Horton) I think it would be completely unacceptable to do anything with that cemetery other than to use it for the community of Sheffield for recreational or visiting purposes. In the area that was cleared nearly all of the bodies are still there, they only removed a few bodies when they did that and that was on the request of families. The bodies are still there even though the gravestones are not. There are many, many people who come on our tours on a monthly basis saying "can you help me find my grandma's grave?", the gravestone has gone and they are distressed. If they felt that there was going to be building on that area there would be upheaval locally.

  93. Right. So, the contribution to urban regeneration is a marginal one of people taking a role, skills training and all the rest of it?
  (Ms Horton) I would say it is, yes.

  94. Can I go on to the funding of the site. You mentioned some of the areas where you get funding from into your group. How easy do you find it to access money from the Heritage Lottery Fund?
  (Ms Horton) Tortuous is the word that springs to mind. We have succeeded in getting a three year project funding from Heritage Lottery for revenue, that is for our education work. That is £87,000 over three years. We have to put in matched funding in terms of volunteer time, which we are doing. Of course, we are absolutely delighted to have that funding but the process to get it was very time consuming and given, again, that we are a voluntary organisation the amount of time we had to spend, as it were, responding to their queries and the amount of information you have to present to them is enormous. It is a very, very lengthy process too. Our current bid is for capital. It has taken us three years to prepare the documentation, using architects, surveyors, landscape architects and engineers, all of whom have been working for us at risk in order to build this bid, so if we do not get that funding we are going to have a lot of very unhappy people on our hands.

  95. What if you do not get that funding and you have all these unhappy people on your hands? What realistic alternatives are there for grant-aid?
  (Ms Horton) I believe that it is a very serious issue, and I really do not know what the answer is. I think that if we do not get the grant-aid for the restoration of Grade II* listed buildings, that will be extremely poor in any case, but on top of that, and besides that, there are all the monuments on the site, some of which are in a bad state in terms of their health and safety and some of which are actually fenced off by the council's health and safety officers to stop people accessing. It does not stop people accessing; they break through because they want to see their family graves. I do not know how we can maintain those graves for the future, except that I believe the friends group has a role to play, and that is that we can train people, in collaboration with bereavement services, to do that work, for example, under the New Deal programme.

  96. You have been told, though, that you cannot earn any income by reinterring ashes, for example, or, in effect, reusing the cemetery for some historic purpose which obviously would be a way of generating income. How, in the long term, do you see the cemetery being funded?
  (Ms Horton) I do not know how the cemetery can be funded significantly in the long term. I believe that in the long term it will have a dribble of income coming through our group, because we can generate an income through doing our education work, for example, through tours, through publications, through talks, through getting funding through taking on unemployed people and from training and development. Through doing a memorial garden we will get some small-scale funding from that as well, but it is small scale. Gradually we will work our way round restoring key monuments, but we are never going to get round the whole site. There are 87,000 people buried there.


  97. In a sense, you represent a lot of friends groups, although individually. You have an advantage, do you not, over a lot of others, in that there are no burials taking place?
  (Ms Horton) I do not think that is an advantage.

  98. Right. How easy is it to manage that sort of historical, educational side with people actually being there very upset, following funerals, that sort of thing? Is there not a clash of interests between wanting to have a cemetery as a quiet place possibly and somewhere where you do not want schoolchildren coming round, perhaps asking awkward or silly questions?
  (Ms Horton) I see where you are coming from. I believe there is an issue here, definitely. I believe fundamentally that it is a great advantage if there are still burials taking place, because that means there is a reasonable income still coming in. I do not like to speak for York Cemetery Trust when I do not think they are here, but they have a few burials taking place, and the sort of people who come to get buried in York Cemetery I believe are more into the ecological approach to burial, and it is more in harmony with the approach of the friends group, I believe, in that it fits in with the education programme, the fact that there are wildlife areas, butterfly gardens and so on and so forth. So I think that there are ways round it. There is a balance. As we see it, we have to toe a very careful line with our tours and talks. We are very much against doing, for example, halloween spectaculars and those sorts of things which people would quite like us to do, because you get Goths who are interested in the cemetery and so forth. We do try to be respectful to people who have family who are still buried there.

  99. So you see that there is possibly a clash of interests between those things, but you think it can be managed?
  (Ms Horton) It can be managed. It is a sensitive area, though.

Christine Butler

  100. Could I ask about the scattering? Sheffield City Council has allowed scattering, has it not?
  (Ms Horton) That is right, yes.

  101. Did it prescribe where this might take place and where it might not take place, and how often?
  (Ms Horton) No, we have not got to that level of detail yet. We know the area in which we wish to scatter.

  102. It has not happened yet?
  (Ms Horton) No. If we get our funding from Heritage Lottery, that will be taking place then. We have got a zone that we are going to use.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence. Thank you very much indeed.

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