Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by Seaham Town Council (CEM 16)

  I have set down below the Council's views which we ask to be taken as evidence by the Select Committee in respect of the various items, which are being considered:—

 (i)  The Environmental, Historical and Cultural Significance of Cemeteries for Local Communities

  We regard local cemeteries and churchyards as being important to the local environment and to the community at large, particularly in view of their historical and cultural significance and the wealth of historical associations with the development of our town.

 (ii)  The Condition of Existing of Cemeteries

  We regard cemeteries as being no different in maintenance terms to any public park or other publicly accessible area. Maintenance is therefore allied to those standards. The general perception of the public also corresponds with this in that they expect cemeteries to be kept in a neat and tidy condition, with grass cut on a regular basis and the cemetery serving as an oasis for quiet reflection of their loved ones.

  Of major concern is the situation relating to the safety of memorials and headstones where these have been previously sited in perpetuity. In later years they inevitably become unsafe and any costs relating to their repair or making safe, fall directly upon the Council. This is primarily due to the problem in locating any next of kin willing to contribute to the repair costs. An associated problem relates to the ongoing issues concerning crime and vandalism where headstones and memorials are being vandalised and pushed over. Again these repair costs are being borne by the Council where no next of kin can be identified.

 (iii)  The Roles and Responsibilities of the DETR, and other Government Departments and Agencies, in the Management and Protection of Cemeteries and Public Policy on Cemeteries and Crematoria

  In our experience we are not aware of any direct role and responsibility held by the DETR and other Government Departments and agencies except for those relating to exhumation orders and the various Cemetery and Open Space Acts where old cemeteries and churchyards are being renovated. From a management point of view it would be helpful if the legislation could be simplified to enable quick and responsive action to be taken to clear and move to the edge of the cemetery those headstones and memorials which have become unsafe and are hindering the ongoing maintenance of the cemetery. Preferably funding for such initiatives should be made available by central government.

 (iv)  Long Term Planning for New Cemeteries and Burial Spaces

  There are major difficulties in providing new land for cemeteries in terms of the onerous planning criteria, particularly within the urban environment where any suitable or vacant land is situated close to residential areas. Historically when existing cemeteries were first provided they were mainly within a countryside setting but over the years has been subsequently built up and developed changing the whole character of the original setting.

  Experience shows that burial trends in Seaham have not substantially changed during the last 15 to 20 years and there is a continuing demand for traditional burials. Alternative and innovational methods of cemetery provision should be examined to reduce the amount of space required for individual interments.

  In terms of the long term planning for new cemeteries our existing burial space within our current cemetery will have been completely depleted by 2004. The search for a new site was initiated in 1989 and it was not until 1997 that a site had been identified for which planning permission and Environment Agency consent could be obtained. This demonstrates the great difficulties associated with locating, buying, and obtaining relevant consents for such a new development.

 (v)  The Management and Provision of Cemetery Services

  Traditionally set out cemeteries are difficult and expensive to maintain and the current trend of providing for lawn burials largely eliminates these particular problems. Emerging trends which are being provided for within our new cemetery developments include providing areas for "green burials" where non-traditional burial practices will be provided for. Areas will be provided where burials can take place in a woodland type setting where traditional headstones are replaced with trees and shrubs and the actual interment can be made in items other than in traditional wooden coffins. Other types of "environmentally friendly" coffins will be promoted including woven willow coffins with a biodegradable lining, biodegradable paper mashie and cardboard coffins and woollen shrouds. There is a developing movement away from the traditional idea of a neat and tidy cemetery towards a more wildlife friendly environment. Although it has to be said that this movement is in conflict with the community expectations of existing burial grounds being maintained to a high standard with grass cutting taking place on a weekly basis.

  We will be experiencing an added difficulty once the new cemetery has been commissioned and opened. This is because the existing cemetery will need to be maintained to a high class level and this will put a strain on the availability of finance and resources which will need to be borne by local taxpayers.

 (VI)  THE FUNDING AND ECONOMIC VIABILITY OF CEMETERIES, INCLUDING FUNDING FROM NATIONAL LOTTERY DISTRIBUTING BODIES

  Here is Seaham it is a burden already for local taxpayers and cemetery clients to bear the full cost of maintaining an existing cemetery. It will become a much bigger liability for the Council and taxpayers when there will be a need to re-open graves and retain a decent standard of maintenance in the old cemetery at the same time maintain the new cemetery which is in an isolated location to the accustomed high standard.

  There are very limited grant opportunities available for developing a new cemetery, other than Forestry Authority Tree Planting grants. The cost of providing a new cemetery can only be funded by way of long-term borrowing. In addition the position of Local Councils in relation to the recovery of VAT on the development costs is uncertain. If zero VAT rating was set against all new cemetery development costs this would result in a more realistic cost of new provision.

  We question whether there should be some form of grant aid provision by way of Government or EC grant aid to assist local councils with the cost of providing new cemeteries which are a basic need of the community.

  We also question whether grant aid could be directed from the National Lottery to assist with revenue funding expenses relating to the repair and making safe of old memorials, repairs to footpaths and to old cemetery buildings.

November 2000


 
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