Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Harlington Parish Council (CEM 70)


  Harlington is a small village in Mid Bedfordshire that has been attempting to provide additional burial and ashes interment space since at least 1981.

  All current burial space is now filled and only limited ashes interment is possible. No land is available for cemetery expansion within the village settlement and all agricultural land around the village is Green Belt. Not all of this land meets Environment Agency requirements and that which does is not purchasable by agreement at less than housing development value despite none of the land being accorded "white land" status in the Local, District or County Plans.

  Harlington recently failed in its attempt to persuade a Planning Inspector to confirm the purchase of suitable land compulsorily and is now negotiating with Bedfordshire County Council to acquire 0.81Ha (two acres) of much less suitable County owned land. Failure to acquire the site of first choice has resulted in considerable cost to council taxpayers and a severe discouragement to continuing with an alternative site, given that any alternative site must have been previously rejected as unsuitable in some way.

  This new cemetery will be a civil burial ground allowing a mixture of traditional practice and the increasingly popular "natural" burials either as "woodland" (with small tree memorials) or "grassland" (with horizontal wooden plaques) with interments in biodegradeable coffins. Multi-faith and no-faith provision will be catered for by leaving an area unconsecrated. Simple interment of ashes will be provided for in areas not technically suited to graves.

  The Parish Council believes that failure to confirm the CPO may have resulted in part from differences in the framework of rules that the Inspector worked to in arriving at his decision and those issued to Parish Councils as guidance in establishing new burial grounds.

  Harlington Parish Council may well have been the first burial authority to consider creating a new burial ground under the waste disposal rules of the EA, although it may have been overtaken by other councils able to acquire land more easily.

  The Parish Council sees the difficulty in acquiring technically suitable land at a reasonable price to be mainly due to the competition with more lucrative uses, particularly housing, even when these uses are disallowed by the existing planning rules. This may be due to the perceived weakness in planning laws that bias changes of Green Belt use in favour of, rather than against, private development and permit continued pressure to be applied to planning authorities to grant permission for "exceptions". As long as landowners see that the future capital value of land as "white land" far exceeds the income from its use, they will be reluctant to sell at current market valuation.

  Harlington Parish Council concludes that it is both prudent and proper for villages to establish new cemeteries both for conventional burials and interment of ashes, of at least equivalent capacity to any existing cemetery, but that equalisation is necessary between the guidance issued to Planning Authorities and Inspectors, and those issued to villages, if attempts to conform with all the stipulations laid down by the statutory authorities are to be met without huge costs to local council tax payers.


  1.1  I am John Geoffrey Harfield and I reside at 126 Goswell End Road, Harlington. I am a specialist in granulometry, that is to say, the measurement and characterisation of finely divided states of matter such as clays, powders and biological cells. I have lived in Harlington since 1974 and have been a Parish Councillor since 1984 without interruption. I was chairman of Harlington Parish Council from 1989 to 1992. I sit on several of the Parish Council's committees including the New Burial Ground Committee.

  1.2  Most of the points raised here were presented by me to a Public Inquiry to determine an Order made on behalf of the Parish Council by Mid Bedfordshire District Council to acquire land compulsorily for the construction of a badly needed new burial ground.


  2.1  Harlington is a compact village with approximately 900 dwellings, the majority within 10 minutes walk of the village centre and in 1996 had a population of 2,360 people. The total population of Mid Bedfordshire District in the same year was 116,100 so that Harlington represents 2.03 per cent of the District. The village has a Local Council of 12 Parish Councillors with a part time Clerk.

  2.2  Harlington sits in Green Belt land which to the east and south east of the village is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV). There are only 23 such AONB areas in England and Wales and this one is perhaps the smallest in the country. The centre of the village has Conservation Area status with a number of listed buildings. There are no significant parcels of land remaining within the Village Development Limit, and the current Draft Local Plan contains no relaxation of the limit.

  2.3  Harlington Churchyard was closed by Order of the Secretary of State in March 1902. In January 1901, a new cemetery was opened, about 0.5 acre in area, divided equally between a secular cemetery and a Church of England (St. Mary the Virgin, Church Road) burial ground. When it was first established, it lay on the village edge. Now, as a result of village growth, the cemetery lies at the centre of the village and has no possibility of expansion.

  2.4  In November 1990, by judicious re-use of allocated spaces, some four remaining burials were possible in the cemetery, none at all in the Church's section. Possibly 24 ashes interments were still available. In 1998, there is now no prospect whatever of burial within the current cemetery in either section. Ashes interment space is limited to small additional areas created around the edges of the cemetery. Even these will shortly be exhausted.


  3.1  The population of Harlington in 1901 was 530 people. Currently, the population is 2,360. Therefore the need for burials or ashes interment may be initially estimated at four times that of 1901. When Harlington Model Village was constructed after 1960, the population more than doubled in size in 10 years. Those who came to live in Harlington at that time were mainly in their thirties. It has been a characteristic of this village that as people's housing needs change with time, they have tended to move within Harlington rather than move out. This may be partly explained by the village's green belt environment and character, but may be influenced as well by the nature of the house designs of the Model Village which lent themselves to extension, allowing occupants to remain in situ as their families grew.

  3.2  Those people who were in their thirties when they arrived during 1961 to 1971 are now in their sixties in 1998. The number of deaths each year that the Parish Council has been able to ascertain averages out over the last 12 years to 17 per annum. There were 23 deaths in 1997. The rate for 1998 estimated from the number in the first few months of the year is 24.

  3.3  Although it may be argued that not all deaths lead to burials, some preferring cremation, in Harlington, as in most village environments, older people tend to be more conservative in their attitudes. At the moment, since there is no possibility of anyone being buried in Harlington, naturally the proportion of those choosing cremation in order to be interred locally, has risen.

  3.4  Parish Councils have no statutory duty to provide a burial ground. Villagers, however expect them to make provision, or have provision made available by a Local Authority. All the inhabitants of a Civil Parish, whether churchgoers or not, have a lawful right to be buried in their Parish Church's Churchyard, even if it is full and regardless of their religion, unless it has been properly closed by an Order in Council via the Secretary of State. Normally when there is such a closure, alternative burial provision is available locally. In the case of Harlington, there is no District Cemetery or easily accessible alternative except the cemeteries and churchyards of nearby villages, or the use of large town burial grounds such as at Luton's Butterfield Green Cemetery where public transport access is so awkward that car travel is the only practical means for relatives to visit graves or memorials.

  3.5  Even for these alternatives, space is becoming so short that villages and towns are starting to limit access for burials from outside their own boundaries, mainly by applying non-resident price differentials.

  3.6  Harlington is not unique in Mid Bedfordshire District in needing new burial space. Ampthill Town Council recently reversed its policy not to provide new burial space, and has purchased land for a new cemetery.

  3.7  Arlesey Town Council extended their cemetery by private agreement in 1988 and on 16th June 1994, Mid Beds District Council Environmental and Leisure Services Committee recommended to the Full Council that 2.21Ha (5.21 acres) of land be acquired by compulsory purchase for additional burial space.

  3.8  Because of Mid Bedfordshire's dispersed population there is little support for a central District Cemetery. In a policy document attached to a letter to all town and parish Clerks dated December 1993 from the District Administrator, the District Council recognises that administration and maintenance of burial grounds are more appropriately performed at town/parish level on the grounds, that most people prefer to be buried in their own parish and in the current Draft District Plan, policy DPS3 encourages the provision of cemeteries.


  4.1  Harlington has been attempting to acquire new land since at least 1981. Most efforts had fruitlessly centred on the Village Green but the charitable ownership, the wide use for village recreation and the smallness of the purchasable area (no sensible councillor could expect the village to accept its entire village green being converted to burial plots) relative to the number of burials expected, finally led to the more sensible consideration of farming land on the village boundary.

  4.2  In Harlington, technically suitable land which might be available in sufficient quantity is mostly owned by landowners living outside the village. Applications to change the status of the virtually all the Green Belt around Harlington are currently being considered at a Public Inquiry into the Draft Local Plan. Judged by the number of these applications and their extent, this land seems to be viewed as a future "white land" resource with a development value rather than agricultural value. It would not be an exaggeration to say that applications to develop this land for non-agricultural use in one way or another, are almost continuous. In the past, the County Council has adopted the same stance in relation to the agricultural land that it owned, insisting that any sale would need to be at future development price, at least 10 times the then agricultural valuation.

  4.3  The point made above, in 4.2 regarding technical suitability, comes about as the result of the setting up of the National Rivers Authority now subsumed into the Environment Agency, with powers to control waste disposal. Burial is deemed by the EA to be a "specialised form of waste disposal". It may well be that Harlington has become the first burial authority to attempt to introduce a new burial ground under the new rules that the EA were imposing. Larger burial authorities became alerted to the implications of the new concerns following technical discussions between Harlington Parish Council and Suffolk County Council (with permeable soil geology in large areas)

  4.4  It would not be an exaggeration to say that many old burial grounds would not have been allowed under current EA restrictions.


  5.1  The dimensions of graves are established by regulations issued by the Secretary of State for the Environment. For adults these are 9' x 4' or 4sq.yds., (2.74m x 1.22m, 3.34m2). The Ministry of Health Memorandum of 1926, suggests that one acre of ground, 0.4ha, should serve a population of 1,000 people at one burial per plot for an estimated 65 years when areas excluded from burial are taken into account and 85 years if all ground is used for interment. Assuming a simple rectangular cemetery shape, paths round the edges and within may account for one-quarter of the area.

  5.2  On this basis, for a population of 2,360, an area of 2 acres would be required to last 85 years. In 1926 considerable allowance had to be made for infant deaths (five in 14 of all deaths) which, fortunately, is not now the case. Historical data suggests that in Harlington 22 deaths out of 23 will be adults.

  5.3  Guidance to parish councils is given in the Parish Council Handbook, Charles Arnold-Baker, (CAB). The text of this is updated at regular intervals and includes changes in law or procedures introduced by HM Government either by statute or regulation. CAB suggests that

    —  Land for a new burial ground should be sufficient for at least the loan period, which for a land purchase may be considered as 60 years.

    —  One acre at two burials per grave should serve a population of 2,000 for 70 years (which is no doubt the average of the 65 and 85 years quoted in the 1926 Memorandum).

    —  Harlington Parish Council calculated that an appropriate pro-rata total area would be 1.08ha or 2.66 acres.

  5.4  Others working to the same guidelines found similar proportions for their new burial areas. for example, Stotfold Town Council extended their burial ground in 1988 to give a total area of 2.82Ha (6.95 acres) for a population estimated at 6,530 (6,886 at 1981 census and 6,434 at 1991 census).

  5.5  Additional to the Secretary of State's minimum area must be added any area for works required by the Planning Authority. Planning requirements are more rigorous now than in former times, both in hard and soft landscaping. Also, the EA sets minimum distances to the spacing between any drainage ditches (needed to take surface water away) and burials. Good design can keep much of the former within the latter but overall, the size of the total burial ground will be larger than the minimum size stipulated in the 1926 Memorandum.

  5.6  Parish councils have no choice in this matter if they are to follow both the Secretary of State's guidelines and conform to the restrictions/demands laid down with the consent from the Planning Authority and conform to the stipulations of the EA, which have statutory backing.

  5.7  Harlington Parish Council concluded that the Secretary of State's guidelines plus the Planning Authorities landscaping and off-road parking requirements produced a realistic total area of 0.836Ha (2.06 acres) to give a usable burial space of 0.629Ha (1.55 acres), and that this would serve the existing population of the village for approximately 100 years.


  6.1  Statutory powers for establishing burial grounds provide no objective method for choosing sites. To maximise the probability of a successful outcome, criteria are based on the need to obtain the consents of the Planning Authority, the land drainage authority, and the Highway Authority and are based where possible on authoritative references. All the criteria essentially fall under the following categories.

Technical suitability

  6.2  The land should be technically suitable. Steeply sloping ground or riverside banks would be examples of ground clearly technically unsuitable for a burial site. CAB recommends that where possible, the soil should be "medium soil", not sloping but well drained. Unfortunately, medium soil is not easily found in Harlington, situated as this area of Bedfordshire is, on heavy clay. Because of the heavy soil, level ground here does not drain naturally but becomes waterlogged. Grass cover on a reasonable slope allows surface rainwater to drain off naturally to lower ground. Similar soils are found in other areas of the country.

  6.3  In addition to the CAB meaning of "suitable", new burial sites require the consent of the Environment Agency as to their suitability. The EA's main concern is that "pollution" does not reach aquifers or leach into runoff water that will enter a watercourse, particularly one that feeds a river or reservoir from which drinking water may be drawn. Unfortunately, the research work underlying most of the EA's concerns originates from Australia and looks at burial grounds purely as a form of waste disposal. Human remains are seen as "corruption" where the original ground before burial is seen as in some way "purer" or "uncorrupted". It stems from this that the bio-burden on the soil created from human interments is regarded as more likely to pollute watercourses or aquifers than other forms of organic remains.

  6.4  In reality, this is illogical. The bioburden on agricultural land supporting crop and small animal residues is itself high. Rotting organic matter is decomposition whatever its origins. Arable cropping often uses sewage sludge injection into the soil as a way of adding nitrogen to the soil and disposing of sludge organically. This produces a high bioburden in the soil which also requires decomposition. What matters is that the distance from the decomposition source to the nearest watercourse, or the depth of soil between the bottom of graves and any aquifer exceeds the decomposition time. This time will depend on the nature of the soil, its water content, and its temperature.

  6.5  In clay soil of the type found in and around Harlington, the total decomposition time will vary from a probable minimum of 10 years to a probable maximum of 25 years. Using the arguments above, Harlington Parish Council was able to persuade the EA to set reasonable distance limits between grave spaces and watercourses or ditches, of 5 metres. Since Harlington sits above a 50 metre thick layer of Oxford clay, the probability of penetration to any aquifer below this is very low indeed.

  6.6  Without that persuasion, the distance and other limits suggested by the Australian work (in very different soils and with a quite different pollution pattern) would have led to such stringent limits being set, that no new burial ground would have been practical in much of southern and eastern England. Burials in sandy or permeable soils would be virtually ruled out.



  7.1  Many people prefer to be cremated. However, for anyone wishing to be interred within Harlington village there is no alternative at the moment to cremation. Naturally, this makes the numbers opting for cremation a higher percentage than they might otherwise be. Nationally, more people choose to be cremated than buried but this statistic is heavily weighted by a large urban population for whom, as in Harlington, there is little choice.

  7.2  Stevenage is an example of a smaller conurbation. Stevenage cemetery interments for 1997 show 150 burials and 230 ashes interments. This calculates to 61 per cent for the latter, compared to the national figure of 70-73 per cent, in keeping with the less urbanised nature of Stevenage compared to, say, London or Manchester.

  7.3  An important factor is the distance from a crematorium. Urban areas are more likely to be close to a crematorium. In a rural or semi-rural area, an assumption of 50 per cent cremation, 50 per cent burial would not unrealistic.

  7.4  There is an underlying assumption in most discussions that cremation is always preferable because it is believed to be more environmentally acceptable, but this is at variance with the facts. Crematoria currently operate under very tight emission controls to ensure that they meet the standards of the Environmental Protection Act, 1990.

  7.5  Crematoria use large amounts of fossil fuels, eg natural gas.

  7.6  Pollutants of concern are carbon monoxide, volatile organic carbon compounds, hydrogen chloride, and particulate matter. Changes to some crematoria to meet the EPA standards and those of the Secretary of State's guidance note Crematoria PG5/2(95) have been reported as needing major building work. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Act 1994, require concern about the possible effects on staff and others of mercury vapour from dental amalgams, and hazards from exposure to the dust created by the ashing process. Plastic implants, as well as the risks from pacemaker batteries, also present some risk.

  7.7  It has been said that each cremation yields some 2.7Kg (6lb) of ash. Scattering this can lead to sterilisation of the soil over which they are deposited, preventing memorial garden plants from growing. Some crematoria, eg Milton Keynes Crematorium, have had to ban the practice and require ashes to be interred in plastic tubes. Harlington Parish Council has always required ashes to be interred in urns and not scattered for this reason.

  7.8  Only the organic content is destroyed by cremation. The ash contains all the minerals and elements, potassium, sodium, chlorine, etc that are of concern to the Environment Agency and of interest to those researching water pollution. Whether a body is buried, or its ashes interred or scattered, these elements still enter the ground. Minerals are more readily leached from ash than from intact bones deep in the soil because fine particulates have a high surface area to mass ratio. This is especially so when the ash is on the surface and accessible to moisture.

  7.9  Harlington Parish Council accepts that the most environmentally satisfactory method is so-called "natural" burial, whereby remains are interred in easily biodegradeable coffins allowing rapid decomposition. These burials are often accompanied by tree memorial planting or simple wooden plaques that degrade at approximately the same rate as the human remains themselves. Thus, a village burial site can become over time a copsed and sympathetic site rather than the desolate open space typical of urban areas. In a village setting, this has considerable attraction.


  8.  Harlington Parish Council failed to persuade the DETR Inspector presiding at the Public Inquiry that a CPO should be confirmed. The Inspector's full findings are given in a report dated 29 July 1998 Government Office Ref: E1/J0215/3/2/03

  Two main conclusions were:

    (1)  an area of two acres was unduly large;

    (2)  the Parish Council had insufficient funds to carry out the work.

  8.1  It is difficult to reconcile these with the guidance to Parish Councils provided by the DETR itself via CAB. The area applied for in the CPO was that calculated via the official formula. Graves cannot be closer than the distance prescribed nor smaller. The additional landscaping both hard and soft is laid down by the Planning Authority. The safe water distances are directions from the EA as to spacing between graves and water courses or ditches. Parish Councils are not free agents in these matters and must work within the constraints imposed.

  8.2  Clearly, for the Inspector to come to a different area conclusion implies that there is another set of guidance notes or formulae that should be substituted for those currently in CAB.

  8.3  Likewise, the financial objection. The cost to the Parish Council utilising the borrowing authority plus its existing capital fund would have been similar to but less than the cost of implementing Arlesey's burial ground at twice the land area. The District Council had offered a 25 per cent of final cost funding grant, to add to both of these. Given that the total available money exceeded the final cost to Arlesey of its new much larger cemetery, it is difficult to see the justification for the objection. Again, the financing of the scheme was within the guidance for large capital projects given in CAB, which are based on statutory requirements under the 1979 LGA.

  8.4  It is only as a result of considerable pressure on the County Council, partly by its current financial circumstances, and partly by the District Council acting on behalf of the Parish Council that it is now considering releasing a portion of its agricultural land for a cemetery. The site was one originally rejected by the Parish Council on location, noise and pedestrian safety grounds and there are still matters to be addressed before purchase can be completed.

  8.5  Harlington Parish Council believes that a more co-ordinated policy between all the tiers of local government is essential if land deemed suitable by the EA is to be identified and made available. This includes a more uniform and transparent set of guidelines or rules to be operated by Burial Authorities, Planning Authorities, and Inspectors at appeal. The social dimension to burial grounds should be taken into account. A better balance needs to be struck between the needs of the community and the expectation that developers have that they will inevitably profit from Green Belt land if only they apply enough pressure and force redesignation through.

  8.6  The Parish Council also believes that the DETR plan for the South East for a huge expansion of house building fuels this expectation and makes the purchase by agreement of agricultural land by burial authorities at current market value almost impossible.

December 2000

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