Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)

TUESDAY 9 JANUARY 2001

MR JOHN ROBERTS, MR MIKE ETKIND, MR ROBERT CLIFFORD and MR BRIAN PATTERSON

  120. No, this is a specific question about cemeteries.
  (Mr Clifford) Yes, and if I can just point out that the Best Value Initiative, which is a broader one, does bear on this issue, which has been initiated by the DETR, so we are conscious of that are that has to be taken into account. We accept, though, that the Home Office has a central function by virtue of its responsibility for the general legislation for burials and cemeteries, and that we would be the first port of call to raise those issues.

  121. Do the DETR representatives agree with that comment?
  (Mr Roberts) Perhaps I should say that I think there are a number of points in which the DETR group tends to have an interest in these issues arising from our range of responsibilities. For example, cemeteries are one aspect of Open Space and Parks, so in our work on parks there is that role and responsibility, and also contributing to urban regeneration, as members of the Committee referred to earlier. Planning is important in providing land for different uses, and cemeteries are one aspect of those uses which the current system has to cope with. We have responsibility for the local government finance system, including powers on fees and charging and so on, which includes all local authority services of which cemeteries are one. There is a general policy on local authority services and "best value", which affects again all local authority services, including cemeteries. Then there are a number of specific issues such as air pollution, for example, which may arise in terms of the operation of cemeteries, and also through the HSE agency, which is not part of the DETR but reports to our Ministers, through general issues on safety, for example.

  122. Do you communicate with the Home Office on any of these issues?
  (Mr Roberts) Yes, there is communication on particular issues as they arise, such as fees and charges and on the air pollution regime.

Mrs Dunwoody

  123. I am not clear what the Home Office actually do, then, in that case. What do you actually do? Can we target exactly what your legal responsibility is? Is it simply those aspects that could impact on, say, crime and detection, for example, or the administration? What exactly are you responsible for?
  (Mr Clifford) We are responsible for the relevant legislation, the legislative framework under the Local Government Act 1972 and other relevant Burial Acts which are still extant, the Cremation Act and so on and so forth. We have responsibility for that legislation. On a day-to-day basis we have certain functions for processing applications in relation to, for example, the closure of potential burials in Church of England churchyards, and that is a function we carry out. We have responsibilities in relation to that.

  124. The opening of graves and so on would come through you?
  (Mr Clifford) Exhumations, disturbances of buried remains, require Home Office licences or similar authorisations, licences and permissions which again we process and deal with.

Mr Donohue

  125. In the Home Office you also issue licences, do you not, for change of use? If somebody wants to convert it into a car park, for example, you would be responsible, would you not?
  (Mr Clifford) No. No, what we do is that we may issue permissions in relation to any necessary disturbance of the bodies that may be buried there, but we are not actually a planning authority in that sense.

  126. So you do not need to give the approval towards the idea where a cemetery of some age is to be demolished (if that is the right word) and a car park is to be put in its place; you do not need to be contacted?
  (Mr Clifford) No. Where we would need to be contacted is if the building work was likely to disturb the existing buried remains, in which case we would require the remains to be removed.

  127. So how many times has that happened in the last two years?
  (Mr Clifford) In terms of applications of that nature, we receive about 30 or 40 a year, something of that order.

Mrs Ellman

  128. If I could return to Mr Roberts' comments, have any of the detailed responsibilities that you itemised, that are part of your responsibility, led you to have any broader policy considerations in terms of cemeteries and their future development?
  (Mr Roberts) I think a range of issues have arisen on cemeteries, particularly issues on the scale of charges and the role of the local authority in providing monuments. That has been an issue that has been live, has been active and has been looked at. In my own specific area in terms of the Urban White Paper, we shall be going into an extensive set of work on the role of open space and parks in urban renaissance, so clearly the role of cemeteries is a potential issue there where they are providing open space and spaces for recreation. So I think it is an issue that arises in various parts of the Department from time to time. I know there are particular issues which have been raised with colleagues on local government finance, for example, which they are considering. So we do not have a particular focus on cemeteries, but it is an issue that crops up in different aspects of our work.

  129. What do you see as the potential for cemeteries in promoting urban renaissance?
  (Mr Roberts) Cemeteries are clearly part of the urban scene, they are part of the infrastructure, so their role, I think, will vary considerably from place to place. I think it will depend very much on whether a cemetery is still in active use or whether it is closed. Where cemeteries clearly provide part of the urban green space, they can be a place for trees, for flora, for vegetation, so they contribute to biodiversity. In places where cemeteries have been closed many of them have been transferred over time to more recreational use—for example, they may become a park, a garden or some sort of recreational ground—so they are part of the green space, they are part of the urban space. That is very much valued and is an important part of achieving urban renaissance.

Christine Butler

  130. Does the Government have any data on cemetery provision, on the remaining capacity in such places, or on the resourcing, the management or indeed the ownership of cemeteries?
  (Mr Clifford) We have not commissioned any.

  131. But do you have any at the moment?
  (Mr Clifford) We have information from a variety of sources such as the industry itself.

  132. Would you describe that as comprehensive, and would it address any of those points I raised? In other words, would you know nationally what the remaining capacity was in cemeteries, how many there were, where they were located, how the resource was managed and so on?
  (Mr Clifford) I suspect the information is not comprehensive. The question is really to what extent do we need information of that nature—routine information—or whether we need information when issues arise which may need to be addressed. Clearly, from evidence you have already heard this morning, there has been an issue about the long-term future and capacity of municipal cemeteries and the need to address that. A good deal of work has been commissioned on that.

  133. By you?
  (Mr Clifford) By the industry.

  134. Who is "the industry"?
  (Mr Clifford) By the burial authorities, the Confederation of Burial Authorities, the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration and other planning authorities.

  135. Can I just ask, who comprise "the industry", the burial authorities? Are you talking about the local authorities?
  (Mr Clifford) The Confederation of Burial Authorities is an organisation which I think represents all, or is open to all, burial authorities, whether municipal or private.

  136. But you do not have that yourselves?
  (Mr Clifford) We do not have the information directly, no.

  137. What I am getting at is what does Government have? It seems not to have very much, unless an issue has arisen and it has got it by default that way. Do you think there is a case there, for us to safeguard future planning, for Government to have such data?
  (Mr Clifford) I think we need to consider what need the database will be put to.

  138. As I say, for strategic planning purposes.
  (Mr Clifford) That begs the question whether central government has a role in strategic planning on this issue. There is obviously an argument to suggest that it should have. I do not think we would take that view at the moment.

  139. Do you accept that there might be a case for Government to know what the national state of our cemeteries is and what capacity we have on a national basis? Do you not think that we would need to know that first, before changes could be advised, before we could consult?
  (Mr Clifford) Historically, Government has not sought that information, it has not gained that information centrally. The question obviously for consideration, I think, is whether there are issues arising which would benefit from having that information and the efforts needed to gather it.


 
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