I thank Tony Baldry for securing the debate on this subject. The issues that he has raised about the town of Bicester in his constituency will echo with you, Mr. Martlew, as the Member of Parliament for Carlisle. No doubt, many of the issues that he described will be more familiar to your constituents than to mine in an inner-city area. However, this is a problem across the board, and this is an important opportunity to discuss it.
I want to make it clear from the outset that we want to give as much help as we can to any individual authority that faces this problem, and I give the undertaking that my officials will work with the relevant local authority in the hon. Gentleman's area to discuss the issues that they face.
As the hon. Gentleman says, it is important for people to have within their community a place to bury their relatives. For hundreds of years, that place has been the churchyard around the parish church, but from the 19th century, the increasing population meant that small churchyards could no longer provide burial space on the scale required. New cemeteries needed to be provided—first by private companies and then by local authorities. Many of those new burial grounds are now 100 years old or more, and many are becoming full. The cost of maintaining those grounds without income from burial fees has become so high that some have fallen into disrepair.
At first, it was thought that the answer would be cremation. Although it was unpopular when it was initiated at the end of the 19th century, demand grew slowly and steadily until the 1960s, when the number of cremations overtook the number of burials for the first time. Everyone thought that there would soon be no demand for burials and that the demand for cremations would increase exponentially, but that was not the case. The proportion of cremations reached about 70 per cent. some 15 years ago and seems to have remained steady at that level. It is difficult to predict certainties, but burial grounds are likely to remain important for society in the foreseeable future.
That is the lesson that the Government took from the work of the then Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs when it reported on cemeteries in 2001. It identified long-term problems with the maintenance and provision of burial space, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and a need to review the law and to provide renewed direction and priority for local authorities.
Since that report was published, the Government have undertaken a range of work to address the issues. We set up an advisory group of burial professionals and others, which meets regularly. We commissioned and published the findings of research on cemetery management. We issued a consultation paper, as the hon. Gentleman said, on a review of burial law, and published a summary of the responses. We published practical guidance for burial ground managers, and undertook a survey of burial grounds in England and Wales.
Since I took over ministerial responsibility for these matters in May 2005, I have met the all-party parliamentary group on funerals and bereavement, and I pay tribute to its work under the leadership of my hon. Friend Mr. Olner. I have discussed with ministerial colleagues who are responsible for local government and health the health and safety aspects of the maintenance of burial grounds. I have consulted and attended meetings of the Local Government Association's safer communities board—I pay tribute to the work of councillor Bryony Rudkin—which has brought together local authorities with this concern, and I discussed the issues with them. I have met members of the burial and cemeteries advisory group and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and responded to many letters and questions from right hon. and hon. Members. I would not want any Members or anyone outside who is concerned about this matter to think that it was not being thought through and addressed. We must proceed, but carefully and sensitively, in consultation and in a pragmatic way. That is what we have sought to do.
The hon. Gentleman is right that no person or organisation is under a statutory obligation to provide a burial ground. The law that he mentioned imposes a responsibility to ensure that the dead are disposed of, and that is what happens. The dead are disposed of, and there has been no situation in which we have felt that we need a statutory obligation to enable the dead to be buried.
As the hon. Gentleman said, in shire counties, town and parish councils, as well as district authorities, all have the power to provide burial grounds. The Church of England has provided churchyards as a matter of practice for many hundreds of years, and a number of other religious organisations have provided burial facilities. Increasingly, private individuals and organisations have developed burial grounds on an entirely commercial basis, particularly in response to specific requirements, such as providing less formal or more natural or environmentally sensitive burial grounds. There is new private sector activity in addition to the involvement of local authorities and what the Church has traditionally done. There is a mixed economy that is dependent on demand and a sense of pastoral care, and that overall system seems to be the best way of moving forward.
There is a problem of burial space not being available uniformly or conveniently for all local communities. A question raised in the public consultation paper, which the hon. Gentleman also raised, was whether there should be a new duty to provide burial space. That suggestion attracted support, and many respondents thought that district rather than town or parish councils were the right home for such a duty. I believe that the mixed economy in which we do not say that a specific authority has the duty, while others do not, is the best way forward. The Government remain unconvinced about imposing a statutory duty placing an obligation on one authority at the expense of others. We do not believe that that is the right way forward. We want different solutions in different areas, rather than to step in and say how things should be done uniformly in all areas.
Planning for a range of local services is vital to local government functions. Respondents to our consultation said that inclusion of burial needs assessments in local planning arrangements was a sensible and achievable goal. We are attracted to the case for better planning for adequate facilities, and it seems sensible to identify ways in which the different levels of local government, Churches and private concerns can work more effectively together to provide not only enough burial space, but a range of different sorts of burial grounds within the context of the different demands that local authorities must respond to when making their local plans.
On land acquisition, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was arguing for a short-circuiting of the compulsory purchase arrangements. Local authorities and other public authorities must go through a number of procedures before they are entitled to take over land because they are expropriating private property. It is absolutely right that they should not be able simply to point to a piece of land and say, "We want that." If they want land, they need to go out to the market and they should not be able merely to say that they want to appropriate it.
New cemeteries are most likely to be needed in built-up areas, where land is liable to be in short supply and subject to competing demands. It would be difficult to argue that burial grounds should be afforded priority over other important land use requirements, such as housing, schools and hospitals. Balancing local priorities is the job of local planning authorities and it would be hard to justify a special status for burial ground applications in the planning system. Neither do we think that well founded local objections to planning applications for burial grounds should be given any less weight simply because a burial facility is at stake. We are encouraging local authorities to put that in their local plans, but we should not have a new compulsory purchase provision enabling them to say that because the land is for burial they must grab it, or that because the application is for burial space the normal consultations are unnecessary.
I appreciate that land that might otherwise be used for housing or commercial purposes will attract a premium, but that is inevitable. Introducing valuation controls for land sold for burial use, even if that seemed sensible on the surface, would be unfair for landowners if they received less compensation because their land was to be used for a burial ground rather than for other purposes. On the whole, respondents to the consultation paper took a pragmatic approach to these difficult issues and recognised that the costs of providing burial grounds might simply have to be borne by those who wanted them. Those costs would have to be reflected in burial fees and other charges.
We appreciate that the costs and administrative procedures involved in acquiring land for burial can be significant, especially for smaller authorities. In such circumstances it may be particularly helpful to discuss with the relevant district councils how best they can help parish councils.
On the reuse of old burial grounds, we are moving forward innovatively. In the first instance, we are supporting London boroughs in the reuse, at their discretion, of burial grounds that are more than 75 years old. We must proceed with caution and sensitivity because people have deeply held feelings. We are taking the matter forward, but we are starting by looking at how it works in London. That may show that people are prepared to take what is often considered to be a drastic step.