Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Ford Park Cemetery Trust (CEM 35)

1.  INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

  The invitation to submit written evidence to the Environment Sub-committee was addressed to the Plymouth Devonport and Stonehouse Cemetery Co. (subsequently referred to as "the Company"). The Company went into voluntary liquidation in March 1999 and the Trust is the Company's successor in title.

  The Company was established by private Act of Parliament in 1846. It was one of a number of private cemetery companies founded in London and other major conurbations in the 1830s and 1840s to meet the crisis in burials caused by rapid urbanisation and poor public health. The history of the Victorian cemetery companies, with one or two notable exceptions such as Kensal Green, was broadly similar in that they prospered greatly during the 19th and early 20th centuries but declined from the 1960s onwards. The increasing popularity of cremation, shortage of burial space and the difficulty of deploying labour saving machinery in cemeteries with closely packed graves, many with kerbstones, all contributed to their decline. In addition, the Company faced particular difficulties with regard to Ford Park. Although there was space for additional burials, the ground was extremely difficult to dig. The private Act of Parliament establishing the Company made it necessary for the Company to seek Home Office approval to raise its fees which as a result increasingly lagged behind costs. The declining profitability of the Company appears to have been reflected in weaker management which in turn led to increasing vandalism and neglect. The loss of the contracts for the maintenance of the service graves, of which there are some 1600 at Ford Park, was the final blow which forced the Company into liquidation.

  On assuming responsibility for Ford Park Cemetery in March 1999 the Liquidator immediately closed it on grounds of public safety. The resulting public outcry led to a petition in favour of the Cemetery signed by around 23,000 people, an eloquent testimony to the strength of public opinion. The Cemetery was subsequently reopened and considerable public pressure was brought to bear on the Labour-run City Council to take it over. The Council declined on expenditure grounds but, with the local press, it played an important role in encouraging the formation of Ford Park Cemetery Trust.

  The Trust was incorporated as a company limited by guarantee on 13 December 1999 with the following objects: (1) the provision and maintenance of Ford Park Cemetery as a public burial place (2) the provision and maintenance of Ford Park Cemetery and its natural environment as an open space for the public benefit (3) the restoration and preservation of Ford Park Cemetery as a site of historic and architectural interest for the public benefit and (4) the advancement of the education of the public particularly in the history and heritage of the City of Plymouth.

  It achieved charitable status on 21 January 2000. It acquired the saleable parts of the Cemetery for £20,000 from the Liquidator on 26 April 2000 and the non-saleable parts from the Crown Estate for £1 on the same day. The remarkably short time-scale of four months between the establishment of the Trust and the acquisition of the Cemetery illustrates what can be achieved when local and central government, the local press, public opinion, a sympathetic Liquidator and a dedicated group of private individuals all pull in the same direction.

2.  THE ENVIRONMENTAL, HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF CEMETERIES FOR LOCAL COMMUNITIES

2.1.   Environmental

  Victorian cemeteries have two unique characteristics. Firstly, because many were founded on what in the 1830s and 1840s was the edge of conurbations, they now occupy a position which is relatively central to those conurbations. Thus Ford Park Cemetery, which extends over 34 acres, is immediately adjacent to Central Park and the two open spaces together form an immense lung near the heart of Plymouth which is of great environmental significance.

  Secondly, because of their size and relative neglect in recent years, many Victorian cemeteries are valuable habitats for fauna and flora and Ford Park is no exception. One of the challenges facing the Trustees is how to retain that characteristic while returning the Cemetery to a state which public opinion feels properly honours those who are buried there.

  More generally, it is among the long-term aims of the Trustees to hand on for the enjoyment of future generations a place of beauty and tranquillity.

2.2.   Historical

  Ford Park was the principal burial place for the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse throughout the second half of the 19th century and as such is a microcosm of local history during that period, and indeed subsequently. There are some 260,000 persons interred in Ford Park and about 30,000 graves, of which about 1600 are service graves.

2.3.   Cultural

  Victorian cemetery architecture has been sadly underrated and neglected and, in spite of widespread vandalism, Ford Park contains a wealth of it. It also has a beautiful early Victorian mortuary chapel attributed to George Wightwick, an architect practising in Plymouth during the middle of the 19th century. The Trustees are currently investigating the possibility of Grade 2 listing for both chapel and cemetery as a preliminary to a feasibility study for the restoration of the chapel, assuming National Lottery heritage funding is available. It is the view of authoritative independent observers that Victorian cemeteries with their superb monumental architecture are an unrecognised but priceless part of our heritage.

  The Cemetery records, going back to 1848, also form a valuable cultural asset. The Trustees, in partnership with the Devon Family History Society, have embarked on a programme which will ultimately see the entire records computerised and made available to historians, genealogists and schools. It is hoped to obtain funding for this task by means of a Local Heritage Initiative Grant.

  The degree of practical and financial support the Trust has received from members of the public since it took over the Cemetery is testimony to the special affection in which the Cemetery is held by many individuals. It is an important part of the social and cultural infrastructure of the City.

3.  THE CONDITION OF EXISTING CEMETERIES

  The Trust inherited a legacy of vandalism, neglect, under-investment and weak management stretching back over a number of years. Many parts of the Cemetery were overgrown and inaccessible, and the overall state of the Cemetery was an affront not only to those with family buried there but to all right-thinking people. Unstable headstones, masonry which had been degraded by vegetation and subsiding graves presented major hazards to public safety, a consideration which remains the overriding concern of the Trustees. In addition the Cemetery has its own unique problems of periodic flooding and the presence of Japanese Knotweed, which greatly complicates the disposal of green waste.

4.  LONG-TERM PLANNING FOR NEW CEMETERIES AND BURIAL SPACE

  This heading is too restrictive unless by "burial space" is meant new burial space in old cemeteries. Old Cemeteries such as Ford Park have, subject to certain conditions, large potential for new burials.

  Unlike some Victorian cemeteries, Ford Park still has considerable space for new burials, albeit in unfriendly ground. A full survey of the Cemetery has yet to be carried out but it is conservatively estimated that we have space for at least 2000 new graves which would permit the burial of a maximum of 4000 persons.

  The existing graves fall into three classes, namely what historically have been called freehold graves (that is grave spaces granted in perpetuity), common graves where the Company retained legal ownership of the grave space and which have no headstone, and grave spaces which were subject to a complicated option to purchase which in many cases was not exercised. The latter class of graves was sometimes inaccurately described as leasehold but they were not leasehold within the strict legal meaning of the term, that is the grant of an exclusive right to the grave space for a term of years. Similarly grave spaces subject to an option to purchase which was not exercised were misleadingly referred to as forfeit graves.

  Until the Cemetery records have been computerised it is not possible to estimate the breakdown of graves between these three classes but it is likely that the so-called freehold graves constitute about three-quarters of the graves in the Cemetery.

  As regards the common graves and so-called forfeit graves, these have historically been reused. The human remains in a grave degrade to a very small volume after 75 years or so, so that a grave which almost certainly would have been dug for at least three persons in the 19th century or early 20th century can now comfortably take two more interments without any disturbance of human remains. Common graves and forfeit graves have been, on occasions are and are likely to continue to be a source of new burial spaces.

  The reuse of grave spaces without disturbing existing human remains is a sensitive matter so far as the public are concerned, but if tactfully handled the idea can be successfully mediated. It is worth remembering that the principle has been implemented in churchyards for centuries.

  As already indicated, unused ground, common graves and forfeit graves will provide the Trust with an ongoing resource for new burials for many years to come. New grave spaces would be available to the Trust on an altogether larger scale if in the future it could reuse grave spaces granted in perpetuity. Local authorities can already do so (see Part III Schedule 2 of the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 SI 1977/204), and it is suggested that a similar power could be extended to private cemetery companies such as Ford Park Cemetery Trust. Whether the power is used or not in the context of Ford Park will depend on public opinion and the views of future trustees but, generally speaking, it would dramatically increase the potential of old privately-owned cemeteries for new burials.

  The above comments assume no disturbance of existing human remains. The trustee body managing Ford Park as at present constituted would not contemplate exhumation to provide fresh burial spaces, even assuming the legal consents were to be forthcoming. Opinion among the Trustees is divided as to the reuse of existing graves without disturbing human remains.

5.  THE MANAGEMENT AND PROVISION OF CEMETERY SERVICES

  It is hoped that the evidence so far submitted illustrates in general terms the important role which private charitable trusts can play in the ownership and management of cemeteries which were formerly owned and managed by private commercial companies.

  More specifically private charitable trusts have a number of unique advantages over commercial companies or local authorities.

  5.1.  They can draw on a wide range of dedicated voluntary help. In the first six months of its management of the Cemetery the Trust has generated an income of over £30,000, made up of a City Council grant, donations and fees, set against personnel costs totalling £4,550.00 for a part-time caretaker and the occasional services of a self-employed gravedigger. The entire administration of the Trust has been undertaken by volunteers. All the clearance work in the Cemetery has to date been carried out without cost to the Trust in part by Groundwork Trust who receive Landfill Tax and New Deal money, in part by various voluntary organisations and groups, in part by many individual volunteers and in part by the City Council. Clearly as the scale of clearance increases and the business of the Trust expands more paid professional help will be required. It is likely and desirable, however, that the volunteer element will always play a most important part in the Trust's management of the Cemetery.

  5.2.  More generally a trust such as ours can enlist the support and goodwill of the community as a whole in a manner which no local authority or private company can emulate. This can have a number of beneficial side effects such as, for example, a decreasing level of vandalism. From the start the Trust has been at pains to project itself as a community trust which exists to serve the people of Plymouth.

  5.3.  A private charitable trust can tap into charitable funds not available to a local authority or private company. Similarly it is uniquely placed to mobilise donations from businesses and private individuals.

  In short, it is the core argument of this memorandum that private charitable trusts have an important functional and ideological role in the management of older cemeteries. Functionally speaking, so long as they can call on voluntary help of adequate calibre, they are likely to be able to administer a cemetery such as Ford Park as, if not more, efficiently than a local authority or commercial company and at very much lower cost to the public purse than a local authority. Ideologically they epitomise the principle of civic engagement to which, as the writer understands it, all political parties subscribe. They are worthy of support.

6.  THE FUNDING AND ECONOMIC VIABILITY OF CEMETERIES

  6.1.  The Trust has and will continue to benefit from public funding of various kinds. It received a setting up grant of £10,000 from Plymouth City Council without which the Trust would not have been financially viable in the initial months of its ownership and management of the Cemetery. The receipt of Landfill Tax and New Deal money has enabled Groundwork Trust to input considerable resources, notably in terms of manpower, into the Cemetery. The Trust has, of course, benefited from the generous tax arrangements for charities and may well benefit further in the future from concessions, for example on VAT, outlined by the Chancellor in his recent Budget Statement.

  6.2.  The Trust would expect public bodies such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Serco, acting for the Ministry of Defence, to support the Trust on grounds both of public policy and because it represents the only realistic option for restoring the Cemetery to a state which properly honours those who are buried there, and particularly the 1,600 or so graves of servicemen killed in action or in peacetime. The long-term viability and effectiveness of the Trust depends to some extent on its success in winning back the maintenance contracts for the service graves which were lost by the Company. The Trustees believe that they can discharge those contracts to a higher standard than the present contractors and at a competitive cost. They do not regard the maintenance of areas immediately around service graves, without addressing the overgrown wilderness extending beyond those areas, as an acceptable long-term solution. They hope the Ministry of Defence and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will see matters in the same light.

  6.3.  So long as grave spaces are available to meet any likely demand for burials at Ford Park the Trustees are confident of the financial viability of the Trust. It is their long-term aim to build up from the sale of burial spaces an endowment fund, the income of which could in part fund the maintenance of the Cemetery when the potential for further burials is exhausted.

  The likely long-term success of this strategy would be enhanced if future trustees had the option of reusing so-called freehold graves where, for example, the last interment was more than 100 years ago (see para 4 above). This raises the more general question of the application of the 1977 Statutory Instrument governing Local Authority cemeteries to private companies which are managing cemeteries. The Home Office has advised the Trust solicitors that it is best practice for the Trust to observe the provisions of the 1977 Statutory Instrument but this is hardly a substitute for a proper legislative framework.

  6.4.  It is hoped that bodies dispensing public funds, such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, will pay due regard to the central role which cemeteries such as Ford Park play in the life of local communities. Cemeteries are for the living not the dead and public funds expended on them will, as well as preserving a priceless heritage, have a direct and beneficial impact on local communities in a way that the restoration of many historic churches does not.

7.  CONCLUSION

  This memorandum touches on a number of areas which fall within the terms of reference of the Sub-committee where the Trustees feel central government could make a difference, either directly or indirectly.

  More generally, they are of the view that the role of charitable trusts in the ownership and management of cemeteries deserves wider recognition and closer study. The first step would be to undertake a national survey of cemeteries owned and administered by private companies, whether charitable or non-charitable, unincorporated trusts and individuals. Drawing on their experience and the knowledge they have acquired of other cemeteries in parallel situations, it is clear to the Trustees that there is a major problem in the transition from private non-charitable ownership to ownership by a charity which it is beyond the scope of this memorandum to analyse. It is, however, an issue of great importance for the future viability of cemeteries such as Ford Park.

December 2000


 
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