Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Society of Local Council Clerks (CEM 43)

1.  THE SOCIETY

  1.1.  The Society of Local Council Clerks was founded in 1972 to promote the professional standing and knowledge of full and part-time Parish, Town and Community Council clerks and their deputies in England and Wales.

  1.2.  Structured on nine regional areas we currently have 33 county branches. A National Executive Council of 28 members meets quarterly in London and the Society's National Secretary is based in Nottingham. Present membership is over 2,400 with many members being clerks to more than one local council.

  1.3.  Many of the Society's members are responsible for the management of civil cemeteries on behalf of their councils or in conjunction with neighbouring authorities or joint burial committees.

  1.4.  Local council clerks also work closely with Church of England parochial church councils in the management of open and closed churchyards; the latter often becoming the responsibility of local councils when they become full and are closed by the Diocese.

  1.5.  The Society offers advice on matters of cemetery provision and management through its National Officers, training courses and information message boards within our website at www.slcc.co.uk.

  1.6.  When notification was received of the Environment Sub-Committee's inquiry, letters were sent to all NEC members and county branch secretaries requesting information about any or all of the issues which the Sub-Committee wishes to examine. Based upon responses received a discussion paper was considered and approved by the Society's National Executive Council on 8 December 2000 and forms the basis of this submission.

  With this background, we clearly have a significant interest in the inquiry and trust that the information gathered and the conclusions drawn, in the limited time available, will be of help to Members of the Environment Sub-committee. The Society is also willing to offer oral evidence to the Sub-committee.

2.  SIGNIFICANCE OF CEMETERIES

  2.1.  The presence of so many cemeteries and closed churchyards in our market towns and rural parishes, some dating back hundreds of years, which are currently maintained by local councils at public expense is clear evidence of their importance within communities.

  2.2.  As places of quiet contemplation and habitats for a variety of birds, insects, wild flowers, trees and shrubs, cemeteries are almost unique in providing an unchanging landscape protected from commercial development. This very uniqueness may also be the reason why the environmental importance of so many cemeteries is often undervalued and overlooked by local planning authorities and the community at large.

  2.3.  Although it is estimated that more than 70 per cent of all interments are in large private or principal authority owned crematoriums, Society members report a steady increase in demand for burials and the interment and scattering of cremated remains in local council cemeteries. Most parishioners still value the right to be buried in the parish or town they were born in or made their home and they look to local councils to provide this facility.

  2.4.  Historically, burial records are a valuable source of information not only to families and genealogists but also social historians. Sadly many burial books and records, particularly those relating to closed churchyards which were kept by ministers of religion or clerks to joint burial boards before the creation of parish councils in 1894, are either missing or in a poor state of repair. There is also no national guidance regarding the storage and long-term preservation of burial records kept in electronic form.

  The Society suggests the need for a higher priority to be given to the proper preservation and safeguarding of such important public documents by both local councils and the Church of England.

3.  CONDITION OF EXISTING CEMETERIES

  3.1.  From reports received, it appears to the Society that most cemeteries managed by local councils are maintained in a manner both commensurate with the resources of the authority and to a standard acceptable to community taxpayers.

  3.2.  Larger town and parish councils tend to employ full or part-time staff to maintain their cemeteries and dig graves whilst smaller councils use private sector contractors or principal authority direct labour organisations.

  3.3.  The heightened national awareness of the need for high standards of safety in public places including cemeteries is worrying many of the Society's members. Most local councils provide no formal health and safety training for both their administrative or grounds maintenance staff and often regard such training as unnecessary, too expensive or inappropriate for non-principal authorities.

  3.4.  Safe working practices and proper standards of care and maintenance in some cemeteries and closed churchyards are not as high as they should be in the opinion of the Society. Local media reports highlighting accidents and potential risks in cemeteries, coupled with the interest now being shown by the Health and Safety Executive in the management of cemeteries by parish and town councils, suggests some public unease in this area.

  It is the Society's view that all cemeteries and churchyards in England should be regularly inspected to ensure compliance with minimum national safety standards.

4.  PUBLIC POLICY AND THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS

  4.1.  The Society is not aware that the DETR or other Government Departments or Agencies have a public policy on the provision, protection or management of cemeteries and crematoria. Apart from the general power to provide and operate cemeteries and maintain closed churchyards, both within and outside their areas, local councils are generally free to do as they wish. The powers of parish councils in this respect are contained in the Local Government Act 1972, sections 214 & 215 and the Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order 1977.

  4.2.  Given the facts that:

    (i)  there are 8,000 parish and town councils (some of which cover more than one parish) in England (Source: Audit Commission),

    (ii)  local councils spend an average of only £26,000 a year with half spending less than £5,000 (Source: Audit Commission),

    (iii)  the majority of local councils have little or no administrative resources beyond the services of a part-time clerk, and

    (iv)  local councils receive no annual Government funding for the acquisition, development or management of cemeteries and closed churchyards,

it is difficult to envisage Government having a "national" policy on the provision of cemeteries, at least, by local councils.

5.  FORWARD PLANNING FOR NEW CEMETERIES AND BURIAL SPACE

  5.1.  Lack of financial resources, absence of medium and long term policy guidance by local planning authorities and difficulties in securing land at an affordable price, are the most frequent reasons given by local councils for their inability to provide more burial space when existing cemeteries and churchyards become full.

  5.2.  The Society believes the Royal Town Planning Institute and the DETR will both confirm that long term burial needs and the identification of suitable sites for new cemeteries in parishes and towns are issues not often addressed in most district council structure plans.

  5.3.  It is equally rare for land or funding for future burials to be included in any Town and Country Planning Act 1990 section 106 Agreements when planning permission is granted for new residential developments.

  The Society suggests the Sub-committee invite the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to draw attention to the need for a regular review of burial facilities in the next Planning Policy Guidance issued to local authorities.

6.  MANAGEMENT AND PROVISION OF CEMETERY SERVICES

  6.1.  As previously stated the majority of cemetery services in parishes and small market towns throughout England are provided and managed by local councils.

  6.2.  Although there are still a considerable number of Church of England grounds receiving burials, as these become full they are not normally extended but instead closed to enable parochial church councils to pass over future maintenance and repair costs to either local or district councils in whose areas they are situated.

  6.3.  To prevent district councils imposing their usually higher maintenance costs on parishes and towns as "special expenses" most local councils have no option but to accept responsibility for closed churchyards.

  6.4.  In addition to routine grounds maintenance a council's duty of care includes the safety of all monuments and the repair of walls, paths, and fences, including the protection of trees. Most churchyards being adjacent or near to churches have the status of listed buildings. Even quite minor repairs and renovations often cannot be carried out without both a Diocesan Faculty and planning permission.

  6.5.  As our rural parishes and smaller towns become increasingly multicultural in both their social development and religious beliefs many elected members and clerks consider the Church of England's continuing legal right to insist that public authorities meet the full cost of maintaining closed churchyards in perpetuity, whilst retaining freehold ownership and rights to grant or withhold faculties, should be reviewed.

  6.6.  The Society also feels that as public demand for more burial space grows and the availability of suitable sites diminishes the regeneration of closed churchyards for burials must be considered as an alternative to developing new burial grounds in both urban and rural parishes.

  The Society suggests the Sub-committee ask the Government to initiate consultation with the Church of England and local authority representatives about the future use of closed churchyards throughout England.

7.  FUNDING AND ECONOMIC VIABILITY OF CEMETERIES

  7.1.  The Society feels it is not an exaggeration to suggest that few cemeteries managed by local councils are economically viable if measured against the basic financial test of income from all sources being equal to, or exceeding, expenditure.

7.  FUNDING AND ECONOMIC VIABILITY OF CEMETERIES (CONTINUED)

  7.2.  Local councils are free to fix cemetery fees and charges at whatever level they consider appropriate and acceptable to community taxpayers. Local council auditors ensure that fees and charges are regularly reviewed.

  7.3.  As previously stated local councils receive no Exchequer funding for any of the services they provide. The burden on many smaller parish councils of maintaining often quite large cemeteries or closed churchyards in a reasonable state of tidiness is often quite onerous and usually accounts for a large proportion of their annual revenue budgets.

  7.4.  The Society has seen little evidence of significant funding assistance from the National Lottery and other grant aiding bodies towards establishing new or extending existing local council cemeteries.

  As local councils have been for many years and remain the principal providers of cemeteries in parishes and towns, capital funding for land acquisition and development costs must be provided. The Society believes that without such help many local councils will be unable to meet future public demand for burials when existing cemeteries and churchyards become full and are closed.

Alan Fairchild

Chairman National Executive Council

December 2000


 
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