Death becomes us all. Everyone hopes that, having died, their remains will be cremated or buried with dignity. There is, however, a problem. In many parts of the country there is a shortage of burial space. I shall raise with the Minister concerns that relate to my own constituency, but I know from e-mails that I have received and approaches that have been made to me since the debate has been publicised, that her response will be read with interest in many parts of the country.
Bicester in Oxfordshire is one of the fastest growing towns in England. There has been substantial new housing in recent years, and substantial further new housing is anticipated in the immediate future. Bicester is a town of some 32,000 people and is growing rapidly. It has a cemetery and the responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of that cemetery appears to have fallen to Bicester town council.
In the local government hierarchy, Bicester town council has, in effect, the status of a parish council elsewhere. Parish and town councils have limited powers. They receive no grant from central Government; they have to raise all their own money. They are under various other statutory constraints. For example, it is not open to a town council to spend any money outside its boundaries without applying to the Secretary of State for specific approval.
That brings me to my first two questions for the Minister. First, in a unitary local authority such as a London borough or a metropolitan district, there is no ambiguity about the fact that it is the unitary authority that is responsible as the burial authority, whereas in counties such as Oxfordshire there are three tiers of local government—in this instance, Oxfordshire county council, Cherwell district council and Bicester town council—and my understanding is that both the district council and the parish or town council are burial and cremation authorities under the Local Government Act 1972. Have I got that right? If so, it may be sensible in policy terms to separate responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of cemeteries—a responsibility that can clearly be discharged by the town or parish council—from the responsibility of having to make provision for new cemeteries. In terms of both statutory powers and the ability to raise the funds needed to negotiate and purchase the land required for those cemeteries, that would be a more appropriate responsibility to place on district councils.
Bicester town council has remaining in its existing cemetery approximately 200 burial plots and I understand that there are about 60 burials a year, so it will not be long before the cemetery is full. The publication "Local Council Administration", in its seventh edition, which I think is the most recent, calculates that at two burials per grave, 1 acre of land may be expected to last 70 years for 2,000 inhabitants. Given that Bicester has a population of 32,000 and growing, we are talking about the town council having to acquire a sizeable acreage of land for a new cemetery—I would anticipate at least 10 acres, and for a local council that has to raise all its own money year on year, that is a quite substantial burden.
Secondly, can the Minister confirm that there is at present limited statutory responsibility on local authorities in terms of a duty to bury the dead? I think that I am correct in saying that under section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, there is a duty on burial authorities to bury or cremate the dead where it appears that no other suitable arrangements would be made. That relates to what I think are described as paupers' funerals. The 1972 Act provides that burial authorities "may", rather than "shall", provide and maintain cemeteries. I think that that fact was confirmed in the Government's consultation paper "Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century: The Need for a Sensible and Sustainable Approach", published in January 2004. It states:
"Although it is the public law duty of the Church of England and, to a certain extent, of the Church in Wales, to provide for burials in open churchyards, there is at present no statutory requirement on any public authority or private undertaking to make available a place for burial. The opportunity for the public to bury those who have died in ground set aside for this purpose is therefore dependent on the exercise of the discretionary powers of parish (and equivalent) and district authorities to provide burial grounds...Provision of burial grounds is also dependent on the normal application of planning legislation. No dispensation in relation to burial grounds is provided".
Perhaps the time has come to place on district authorities a statutory responsibility to provide burial grounds and to ensure that the costs or what in local government parlance are described as the "new burdens" of such a responsibility are fairly met through the financial support mechanisms for local government.
Notwithstanding the financial difficulties, Bicester town council has done its best to find land for a new cemetery. I firmly believe that Councillor Debbie Pickford, the leader of Bicester town council, is to be commended for the very considerable energy and effort that she has devoted to this particularly sensitive subject. The difficulty is that although the town council approached a wide range of landowners in and on the outskirts of Bicester, none of them was willing to sell any land. That is perhaps understandable. Any people who own land on the edge of Bicester have hopes that in due course such land will be designated for housing and, in the absence of any compulsory purchase, they are unlikely voluntarily to sell such land now for the purposes of a cemetery.
Two developers have planning permissions to develop quite sizeable areas of new housing on what are known in shorthand as Gavray drive and the south-west option. The town council approached the developers of the housing on Gavray drive and the south-west option, asking if they would be able to give the town council some land for a new cemetery. Both declined. Again, that is not entirely surprising. Builders of sizeable housing developments such as those find that ever increasing section 106 burdens are placed on them—for example, having to provide land for new primary and secondary schools, contributions to main roads and so on—and they are understandably reluctant to give up further land on which they have planning permission to build houses. In short, the town council was not able to find any landowner in the immediate vicinity of the town who was willing to sell land for a cemetery.
The town council then looked to see whether any suitable site existed on land already in its ownership. Such land is very limited and, as I am sure the Minister will appreciate, for a growing town such as Bicester, any recreational or amenity land in the town centre is very much valued. One site was identified, but there was then a further complication. A rock stratum goes through the town, which would make conventional burial extremely difficult, so the town council considered the possibility of above-ground burial chambers and visited a cemetery in Bedford where some above-ground chambers are already in place.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that suggestion met widespread opposition from local residents, which I think reflects the perfectly understandable cultural sensitivities about burial. Those are perhaps best summarised by an extract from the "Local Council Administration" handbook, to which I have referred. It states that
"the responsible body must maintain the churchyard in decent order, that is, it must not offend the susceptibilities of a reasonable Christian, bearing in mind that ground levels always rise."
Indeed, at the last meeting of the planning committee of Cherwell district council—the local district council—it refused planning permission for such a cemetery on the grounds that it would result in the loss of an attractive, well used area of public space and would be inappropriate on a small, highly constrained site in a residential area.
By definition, most town councils are likely still to have in their ownership only small land sites in residential areas. This issue is not in any way unique to Bicester. I think that there is a collective sensibility about what we believe a burial ground or cemetery should look like. That said, I readily recognise that such sensitivities may vary widely from country to country, so what might seem usual and acceptable in, say, Spain or Italy would not find public support here.
In short, the town council has done everything in its ability to try to purchase new land for a cemetery and has considered the potential of its own limited existing land holdings, all without success. That causes me to ask the Minister what the Government's position is on three issues: the reuse of graves; the ability of a town or district council to acquire land for a cemetery by compulsory purchase; and the need to designate land for cemeteries in the planning process and the local development framework. I appreciate that the last two issues are not immediately within her brief, but her Department has clearly been given the lead responsibility regarding the law and policy on burial grounds. As I gave the Department notice of the issues that I intended to raise, I hope that she will give a full response.
On the reuse of graves, it is worth remembering that as long ago as January 2004, the Home Office published the consultation paper "Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century: The Need for a Sensible and Sustainable Approach", which I have already mentioned. The consultation on that document ended in August 2004—almost three years ago—but a summary of the responses was not published until almost two years later, in April 2006. For reasons that were never explained, responsibility for the matter was then moved from the Home Office to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Almost another year later, there is still no new guidance on burial law or policy from the Government. So far, the review has seen three Home Secretaries and two Departments, but no action. There is also a burial and cemeteries advisory group, which is made up of Departments and regional government bodies. The group is meant to offer advice and guidance, but it has not met since December 2004.
It is unfair of the Government to expect town councils such as Bicester to grapple with sensitive issues such as cemetery provision, without any help, guidance or advice. Given the scarcity of land available for burials and given that some burial grounds have closed because they are full, it is not surprising that the possible reuse of graves or burial grounds has been under consideration for some time. In its 2001 report, the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs concluded:
"It is the almost universal view of those in the burial industry that reuse is the only long-term solution not only to the lack of burial space, but also to the long-term financial viability of cemeteries. If the public are to continue to have access to affordable, accessible burial in cemeteries fit for the needs of the bereaved, there appears to be no alternative to grave reuse...For the reasons stated above, and assuming that the necessary safeguards are included, we are ourselves of the opinion that legislation should be introduced allowing burial to take place in reused graves."
The university of York's cemetery research group observed:
"Difficulties with burial authorities running out of space for interments have led to proposals favouring the reuse of graves. Reuse comprises what has been termed the 'lift and deepen' method, whereby graves are excavated to their deepest depth, with all remains - including bones and any coffin furniture - placed in a casket and re-interred at the bottom of the grave. A survey of 1603 members of the public found that the majority of people would not object to this system if it was well-regulated, and if disturbance took place only after 100 years."
In its summary of responses to the consultation paper, the Department said:
"Most respondents were in favour of pursuing a re-use option for burial grounds, varying from those who consider the practice should be implemented immediately to those who regarded it as very much a last resort".
It went on to say that the "lift and deepen" method was preferred".
Some 18 months ago, the Minister gave a written ministerial statement in which she said:
"Arrangements are now in hand to discuss with burial practitioners and others the practical details of the changes needed to give effect to law reform in this area. In doing so, we will consider sympathetically the case for enabling the re-use of old burial grounds, seeking a balance between the interests of relatives and descendants and the wider needs of the local community. The further work now initiated is expected to be completed next spring."
Of course, that would have been last spring. Her statement went on:
"Thereafter the Government will inform the House of their plans to bring forward proposals for burial law reform."—[Hansard, 7 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 2-3WS.]
Last May, in a press interview about the need to address the shortage of space in cemeteries, the Minister was quoted as saying:
"We have now got to make some decisions that have been put off and put off...We have got to be relatively prompt about it. This is not a problem that will go away."
Clearly, it is not going to go away. Ministers have consulted and there has been a clear response to the consultation, it must now be for them to get to grips with bringing forward proposals for burial law reform.
I move to the issue of compulsory purchase. There is no compulsory purchase power for local authorities to buy land specifically for cemeteries. I believe that district councils can use the very general powers in the Local Government Act 1972, which gives principal councils—I assume that that includes district councils—the power to acquire land compulsorily
"for any purpose for which they are authorised...to acquire land...whether situated inside or outside their area."
Cemeteries are needed for the public good and it must be in the interests of the public good that local authorities are able to acquire land for cemeteries. The advantage of being able to acquire such land by way of compulsory purchase, if land owners are not willing to sell voluntarily by private treaty, is that the valuation office will set a fair market price. Compulsory purchase provides a mechanism of last resort by which local authorities could find land for cemetery use.
There appears to have been a further twist in the Bicester saga. The town council was led to understand that it might well succeed with compulsory purchase proceedings if it could identify only one site on the outskirts of Bicester that was suitable for a cemetery, but that it would be very difficult to take forward such proceedings if it identified more than one suitable site. I find that rather curious. The chief executive of Cherwell district council, Mary Harpley, advised me that
"with regards to the possibility of using Compulsory Purchase powers, such powers are usually contested by the landowner. The Council would have to prove that no suitable alternative to the use of that particular land was possible. To do that, the Town Council will have to document all the approaches they have made to landowners around the town. In the Planning Officers' experience, without such documentation the Compulsory Purchase Order is unlikely to be confirmed."
That is clearly a substantial administrative responsibility for any parish or town council to undertake.
Lastly, it follows that if there is no suitable land available within the town of Bicester, land will have to be found in neighbouring parishes. Surely, it must be right to ensure that district councils, as the local planning authorities, put provision for cemetery land into local plans and the local development framework proposals. There may well be landowners in neighbouring villages who have agricultural land that they are unlikely ever to get permission to use for anything other than agriculture. Such landowners might well be willing to sell that land for a cemetery, as it would probably be of greater market value than agricultural land.
These issues need to be considered sensitively with the parish councils of any neighbouring parish. They should seek to identify sites that are sympathetic and accessible, as far as possible, and which command the support of local residents. Identifying sites in that way is probably best done through a planning system and the local development plan, but there seems to be no impetus or obligation on district councils to do that. I fully appreciate that this is an extremely sensitive subject, but further procrastination is not going to make it any less sensitive. Town and parish councils are being put in an increasingly difficult position. I am sure that others will be grateful for the Minister's reply.