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
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
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.
2.1. 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
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
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
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
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:
(ii) local councils spend an average of only
£26,000 a year with half spending less than £5,000 (Source:
(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
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
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.
6.1. 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
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
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
Chairman National Executive Council