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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) on securing this debate. He is the only Member who has ever raised the issue of green burials with my Department, and I have, therefore, listened with singular interest to the matters that he has highlighted in the debate. He spoke eloquently, even movingly, and made a strong case for a more joined-up approach across Departments and public services on the matter. I will certainly reflect on the case that he made.
I believe that it would be helpful if I were to contribute to the debate by setting out the current planning position regarding green burials. Although burial principally occurs in purpose-designed cemeteries or churchyards, there are some exceptions. Families with large estates have routinely built a mausoleum or similar building on their land, for the burial of family members. Historically, it has doubtless been the case that some individuals have been buried in farmland and others in gardens, but the practice has not been widely noticed.
More recently, such burials have received a degree of media attention and it is believed that numbers have increased. Some of that has been due to the promotional activities of the Natural Death Centre, a charity formed to support a less formalised routine for funerals, as well as a more positive approach to death in general. It provides advice on green burials.
Those who opt for a green burial feel there are significant advantages to that form of burial. They argue that it allows them to organise a very personal funeral, in which they maintain total control. It is also argued that there are financial and environmental benefits from the practice. However, the complexities of carrying out a green burial may also be significant, although those vary according to the location. First, it is essential that permission to complete a burial be obtained if the landowner of the ground is not directly involved in the planning of the funeral. Secondly, any individual or mortgage company that has an interest in the property needs also to be notified. Thirdly, it should be borne in mind that access to the grave may be denied or restricted by change of ownership.
Most locations for such so-called green burials fall into two categories: on farmland and in a garden. Farmland locations are rarely overlooked and so will not offend neighbours or the public at large. The gravesite should be on land with a deep water table and be sufficient distance from watercourses so as not to pose a pollution threat. Electrical or other services must obviously be avoided.
With regard to planning permissions on such sites, a limited number of burials over a period of time may not constitute a change of use and no planning approval would thus be necessary. Recent local authority certificates of lawfulness have decided that planning
Safety in the excavation of the grave is a further consideration, as is the requirement to leave a sufficient depth of soil3 ftover the body. If it is intended to fence or mark the grave with a memorial, planning permission may be required. In effect, a single burial in a farm situation can proceed without an approach to, or the approval of, any council or other official organisation.
Garden burials, however, are complicated by the proximity of neighbours who may object to a burial in their close vicinity and may be offended by the sight of a coffin or body. There may be legal issues and there are, of course, issues of relationships but otherwise the considerations that apply to farm burials are broadly similar. The particular difficulty in garden locations is the likely reduction of the property value owing to the presence of a grave, or even the deterrent value of the presence of a grave to any sale at all.
Two major concerns influence that choice of burial. The first is the possibility of a future exhumation and burial elsewhere; there are legal means, in other words a restrictive covenant, whereby it may be possible to ensure that the grave remains untouched but they would involve costs and other uncertainties. Secondly, it is clearly the case that details of the burial will not be officially recorded, as they would be in a cemetery. None the less, it appears that there is a statutory requirement for the landowner to maintain a register of burials, even if only in the form of a note, preferably showing the location, in the event that the grave is disturbed by building or excavation works at some stage in the future. The Home Office recommends that it be lodged with the deed of the property. In addition, a certificate for burial issued by a coroner or registrar of births and deaths must be obtained and returned to the registrar by the person arranging the burial.
I now turn to the circumstances in which planning regulations come into force: the locations where more than a limited number of private non-commercial burials are occurring or proposed. Cemeteries and graveyards, except those ancillary to a church, and burial grounds, including green burial sites, are classified under the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 as sui generis. Accordingly, any change of use would require planning permission.
Although a single burial or a limited number of burials over a period of time may not constitute a change of use requiring planning approval, exceeding the limited number of burials may require planning approval for change of use to a cemetery or burial ground. In such circumstances, local authorities have the responsibility of deciding what uses the land may be put to and assessing the potential impact of that development. That is done through the local plan-making process and planning applications will be decided in accordance with such plans.
Although it may be argued that woodland or green burials would have little impact on the countryside, it is for the local planning authority to determine where a change of use has occurred or will occur and whether to grant planning permission. Of course, the local planning authority will treat each application on its merits, on a case-by-case basis. Members of the public have an opportunity to contribute their views once an application has been registered, and the local planning authority has a duty to publicise the application.
When a planning application for development relating to the use of land as a cemetery is received, the local planning authority also has to consult the Environment Agency and to take into account any informal advice it proffers. The agency's concern would be the possible environmental consequences for underlying aquifers and for nearby watercourses,
Let me conclude by saying that I have been aware of the situation regarding the burial ground at Gertrude's Pasture in Scotton, Harrogate, and I understand that it has a complicated history. However, since, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, this matter is now likely to be subject to appeal, he will understand that in my quasi-judicial capacity as a Planning Minister I am unable to comment further. I am sincerely grateful to him for raising these interesting issues, and I leave him with the assurance that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister continues to keep these matters under review.