Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Bristol General Cemetery Company (CEM 54)


  1.1  To enlighten the Environment Sub-committee as to this most famous company in the light of knowingly misleading statements in the media and by others who sadly do know better and thereby on the industry generally from the fresh viewpoint of newcomers, albeit very experienced commercially generally.

  1.2  By publicly enlightening a body of the Sub-committee's standing of the true position, to achieve a just resolution for the benefit of all affected, too long delayed.


  2.1  The death business is largely extremely profitable, which affects attitudes both the public and private sectors, although it must be recognised that the taboos and the actual handling of the dead cause it to be a matter most of us wish to avoid.

  2.2  Media attention, largely publishing only bad news does not help. Soft targets get lurid headlines although the small print sometimes achieves a better balance.


  Failure, at all levels locally and nationally, to recognise that this Statutory Authority cannot legally replace its cremation income lost by installation of excess capacity by an all-powerful municipal competitor, that the position would be unchanged whoever owned shares making a campaign of personal vilification pointless. The latter paradoxically has been against those solely coping with this problem not of their making and has exacerbated the distress caused to very many affected persons.


  4.1  There was, before cremations ceased (due to municipal competition) a been total lack of assistance or interest from the clergy and religious bodies of all denominations, although well-publicised in advance, this despite a great deal of consecrated land in Arnos Vale Cemetery. The only approach since has been very specific with no recognition of the overall problem.

  4.2  A direct approach for help to the Bishop of Bristol following a bitterly unjust and ignorant letter from a C of E parish resulted in an unclerically robust rejection.

  4.3  It is perhaps appropriate that the pavement on the Arnos Vale Cemetery side of the A4 Bath Road ceases as it reaches Arnos Vale, enabling the clergy to pass by on the other side.


  5.1  Although laid out originally as a zoo, what are now known as the beautiful Victorian Arcadian Gardens were promoted as a cemetery outside the borders of Bristol City when the church graveyards were becoming dangerously full due to epidemics of malaria and similar. After the first Bristol Cemetery Act 1837 the two chapels and two entrance lodge gatehouses were constructed in a paladian style and are now all Listed Grade 2*. This area is approximately 17 acres and contains all bar one of the Listed items, mainly consisting of memorials and tombs, of which of the Rajah Roy Ramahoun, founder of Indian democratic and humanitarian thought, is amongst the best known. Whilst a prime example of funereal and memorial gardens, they are of specialised appeal and a majority view might be that they are less significant than a Cistercian Abbey or a major public building.

  5.2  At first, grave purchasers chose their own spot reflected in a haphazard layout but very soon a disciplinary approach was adopted for both commercial and maintenance benefits, even if unattractive. Two further Acts of Parliament, 1880 and 1891, added further land to bring the total to 45 acres today. There are over 40,000 graves containing over 500,000 deceased, some in significant tombs, others having been merely tipped into what are known as paupers' graves.

  5.3  In 1926, a fourth Bristol Cemetery act added the legal authority to cremate and up to seven furnaces were commissioned, which served by four chapels, gave a final capacity of up to 10,000 cremations p.a., a total cremated now more than 100,000.

  5.4  Towards the end of the 1960s three major events occurred. First, it became apparent that the graveyard at the then rate of burial would soon reach capacity, but that cremations were rising rapidly in popularity compared with burials and Bristol Council installed two crematoria of their own, of which the first might possibly have been justified geographically and politically. The second had neither justification and was the ultimate death knell of the companies' cremation business.

  5.5  A downward spiral of income followed by a lower standard of service occurred. Bristol City Council being a commercial competitor as well as the planning authority was also the enforcement agency under the Health and Safety Acts and especially the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Council refused Interim Permission to Cremate under the latter Act forcing the Company to Appeal which it won without qualification, although at heavy cost of cash and managerial time. The knowledge also unsettled funeral directors who in practice are the company's customers, rather than the public, and by the time the appeal succeeded, the damage was done.

  5.6  The downward spiral continued until the company had insufficient means to meet the requirements of that Act for the installation of new machinery, cremations stopping on 31 March 1998.

  5.7  The Council today receives an income in excess of £1 million pa as a result of these actions.


  6.1  As stated above, cremations ceased on 31 March 1998 and thus deprived the company of the bulk of its already diminished income and was thus in danger of breaching the criminal law concerning trading whilst unable to meet liabilities. Therefore the office was closed and the remaining staff made redundant (itself costly).

  6.2  In anticipation, some months prior to this problem, the company wrote to the Leader of the Council seeking a meeting to discuss the future and to allow him to see the position from the company's side but no reply was received. Instead he referred the matter to the Planning Directorate rather than either to the Chief Executive as the matter covered several directorates or to Health & Safety who were responsible for the disposal of the dead in the City. The Planning Directorate concentrated solely upon the problems of the listed buildings and similar and virtually no consideration was given to the disposal of the dead, the only legal source of this Statutory Authority's income.

  6.3  The Planning Directorate appointed as its consultant an architect who had no personal knowledge, or at all, of the death business and who chose—despite a cordial invitation—not even to meet the Managers of the company. Unsurprisingly the expensive report partially paid by English Heritage and English Partnerships from national funds, contributed little to an overall resolution of the problem and concentrated mainly on fixing a very low price for any purchase by the Council, whether by agreement or by Compulsory Purchase.

  6.4  It is significant that this report and subsequent similar publications openly considered the prospect of a planning consent for a residential development, although the company has never put in an application for such, nor has one ever been in preparation. This will be dealt with in detail below.

  6.5  The main error in this report in relation to a potential development was the cost of graveyard clearance for which the consultant ignored the company's information that it had a direct very recent quotation and he clearly misunderstood how such an important matter would be tackled.

  6.6  There has been a totally—and in the company's view wilful—misleading publicity campaign relating to the events of 31 March 1998, the date of cremations ceasing. Prior to this and after the letter to the Council Leader, the company made no secret of the future problems but left the door truly open in stating that whilst closure of the cemetery was a possibility, this would only become inevitable if no action was taken to keep it open. The position was notably disadvantaged by both media attention and the so-called "Friends" group (below). As a result, hysteria was whipped up and on that date what can only be described as a howling mob descended upon the cemetery and besieged the directors and staff in the offices accommodated in one of the lodge gatehouses.

  6.7  Although the police arrived they were totally ineffectual, spending most of the time inside the lodge, making no attempt to dispel the crowd of which they were clearly frightened. In the end the Senior Officer present advised the managers to make their escape, barely providing sufficient cover for this and not preventing members of the mob kicking a car, about which the police took no action. Subsequently the mob took over, padlocking the gates and opening them at their will, claiming credit for the opening, when in fact the company had never physically shut them or threatened to do so.


  7.1  As set out above, Bristol Council opened unnecessarily fresh crematoria outwardly for political considerations, that of following the political philosophy of its era of cradle to the grave care. In the light of its subsequent actions, it is doubtful whether this was the sole motive and now that the income is running in excess of £1 million pa whether further revenues at the private sector's expense and to boost headcounts in various departments is now more attractive.

  7.2  Whilst outwardly respectable, the desire to increase public open space at the expense of a what is a private working graveyard and without entering the proper planning procedures for a change of user, is being used to disguise thinly an attempt to acquire a valuable 45 acre freehold estate near the centre of Bristol with the opportunity, in due course, to utilise the valuable buildings as a cheap way to fulfil other objectives. Gaining such an important site at very low or zero cost also adds to the powerplay and headcounts of various directorates coupled with the opportunity to dispense favours such as consultancy contracts.

  7.3  In pursuit of the above it has been noted that the Council operates in three capacities—the Planning Authority, an enforcement agency under the Environment and Health & Safety legislation and as a commercial competitor. It appears to be no cause for query or anxiety, that the implementation of the first two of those authorities vastly benefits the third. A very senior Councillor freely admitted that the Council's profit from its own activities in this area benefited their own cemeteries with no thought being given to the greater pre-eminence of Arnos Vale Cemetery.

  7.4  Despite, as noted above, Bristol Council having led this matter through its planning directorate with emphasis on the Arcadian Gardens and Listed items, and the clear opportunity to obtain maximum grant/lottery aid, there has only been a muffled and confused attempt to recognise there will be a substantial shortfall both on the initial capital for restoration and later income need for maintenance and especially security. This will be referred to below under heading "National Government" and the "Adjournment Debate". This question has been posed many times especially by the company's respectable consultants during the Deposit Plan proposals but at no time has there been a clear or any attempt to answer the question.

  7.5  The reason for there being no answer to the question of a source of the shortfall referred to in the preceding paragraph is that it produces only the alternatives which are equally uncomfortable for Bristol City Council—it can only come from the Council itself or it being made attractive for private sector investment by an attractive planning consent.

  7.4  Whilst spuriously claiming that the company refuses to negotiate and endeavouring to make a personal issue of matters which would be unchanged whoever owned the company's shares, at all times there has been a refusal by the Council to meet for reasonable negotiation to resolve matters; co-operation between the Council and the company is the only way forward, against which there can be no argument of the least validity.


  8.1  Arnos Vale Cemetery crosses no less than five government departments:

    The Home Office;

    Department of Culture, Media and Sport;


    Defence (for the Commonwealth War Graves); and

    Foreign & Commonwealth Office (due to the impact of the Rajah Roy tomb upon millions of his followers here and in India.)

  8.2  An approach to the Cabinet Secretary to co-ordinate these five ministries met with a rebuff on the grounds that it could not intervene (apparently unable to distinguish between co-ordination and intervention).

  8.3  The Home Office must bear the brunt of the failure of national government through being responsible both for the disposal of the dead and for law and order (apart from that particularly falling to the Lord Chancellor). It has shown a marked indifference to almost every topic upon which it is approached. The matters on which they have turned their back include bereaved persons, whose distress has been whipped up by the media and the so-called "Friends" group, who actually exhumed and removed the ashes of their departed loved ones, technically a crime but surely a matter which would cause the greatest concern. The sponsorship of the "Arnos Vale Army" by the local press and its treatment with lurid headlines was agreed to fall within the definition of criminal libel. These and other matters including the mob rule referred to previously brought simply the terse comment "tell the police".

  8.4  Most recently there has been an increase in bias towards the Council of which the most marked example has been invocation of Guidance rules relating to the records of closed crematoria. Whilst apparently agreeing that those Rules might well apply more to a crematorium closed on a sale or the cessation of the whole company, they have been used to deprive the Company of records used regularly to conduct searches mainly for those who need the information for genuine reasons eg to scatter recent ashes in the same place as a previous deceased. This was accompanied by a threat under a Victorian Forgery Act involving life imprisonment for deterioration of burial records against the current management who in practice have been solely responsible for a generation to take any positive action to preserve Arnos Vale Cemetery, including those records.

  8.5  The Departments of Culture Media and Sport became entrapped due to being responsible for English Heritage who had been successfully lobbied due to the emphasis of Bristol City Council on the "heritage site" in Arnos Vale Cemetery. English Heritage played a devious hand culminating in the then Chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens refusing to meet the company's representatives despite it being clearly shown that he had not been given the true picture by his subordinates. In the Adjournment Debate (next below) then Minister Tony Banks stated clearly that it was the government's view that human safety should be dealt equally with other issues, acknowledging that deaths, including those of children, had occurred in virtually identical graveyards. The DETR has taken no notice of this point.


  The Sub-committee is referred to Hansard reporting the debate on 21 May 1998 moved by Mrs J Corston MP. A detailed rebuttal and commentary was made to Tony Banks and the DETR, available to the Sub-committee, with subsequent concentration on the human safety aspect mentioned above. We do not propose to repeat this rebuttal of what we regard as a wholly unwarranted and unfair attack save to draw attention to one manifestly false statement which devalues the whole debate. Mrs Corston refers twice to an entry in the Investors Chronicle as an "advertisment" by our parent company Arnos Village plc whereas the merest glance of that entry shows it, with others alongside for different companies, plainly to be journalistic comment over which no company has control—exactly the same as for political matters. Mrs Corston is highly experienced and educated (Barrister of the Inner Temple) and we do not regard this as an innocent mistake, rather adding to the campaign of personal vilification to support those who seek to gain control of the valuable 45 acre estate of Arnos Vale Cemetery for nil or derisory consideration.


  9.1  Inevitably, the query must come into minds as to whether and why profit might be taken from a situation such as Arnos Vale Cemetery which brings so much distress to so many. In this particular case no true profit figure can apply without taking into account the fact that the existing owners have received no pay for over 15 years' unremitting hard work, nor any return on capital, in unpleasant circumstances made unnecessarily more so by the equally unremitting and unpleasant antagonism of Bristol City Council and its supporters manifestly misdescribed as the "friends of Arnos Vale", to whom physical violence is no stranger in their paranoid attempts to obtain involvement with no beneficial contribution in sight.

  9.2  In considering profitability, what has to be taken into account is the previously related fact that Bristol City Council of its own volition with no compulsion whatsoever entered the market for cremations in the knowledge that the finite extent of that market is limited by the numbers of deceased — one death, one burial is the old axiom — and therefore either knowingly or negligently embarked on a course which could only in the ultimate adversely badly affect Arnos Vale Cemetery.

  9.3  Can Arnos Vale ever be profitable? In its exact present form, no. However, the sheer size of the estate and the accommodation available could be attractive for concepts such as the "one stop" funeral service ie from the time the person is dying all the way through the necessary procedures until refreshment on the way out (now the modern trend). However, even the unsatisfactory report of the Council's own consultant points out that the Council would lose revenue if the cremation activity of Arnos Vale were revived.

  9.4  Equally, the original Victorian core could be used partially for the decreasing burial activity with putting the buildings to other uses.


  NO—unless the main players headed by Bristol City Council, who must show responsible leadership, join with us and the appropriate government departments to face the facts set out herein with a determination to succeed and end the distress caused to so many innocent persons unable to help themselves.

  Of the main players, the inactivity by the clergy to a problem clearly obvious for many years is morally contemptible.


    —  We cannot alter the facts which are as difficult for us as for all other affected persons and bodies, which facts will remain unaltered whoever owns Arnos Vale Cemetery.

    —  The main fact is that the cremation business is unique in that supply of deceased cannot be expanded to meet excess capacity which therefore can only cause the weakest to suffer.

    —  In this case the weakest—Arnos Vale Cemetery—affects the greatest number, the relatives and descendants of nearly one million deceased, including 500 Commonwealth War Graves, of whom two are holders of the Victoria Cross. To this must be added the millions who revere the memory of Raja Roy Ramahoun.

    —  Bristol City Council's denial that it seeks to purchase Arnos Vale Cemetery for nil or derisory consideration is rebutted by their own recent offer of £1. Any one of several buildings is self-evidently worth many thousand times that sum.

    —  The Council's refusal to accompany any offer of purchase with clear cut schemes for the future operation of Arnos Vale Cemetery with equally clear funding proclaims a policy of opportunistic fudge, endorsed by their refusal and that of their consultants even to meet.

  The consideration of this issue by the sub-committee may well be the catalyst to achieve a positive resolution. We hope and pray this will be the case.

Anthony Towner

December 2000

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