HC Deb 26 May 1952 vol 501 cc1112-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Studholme]

11.35 p.m.

Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

The subject I wish to raise may be considered a constituency matter, but it has more than parochial interest because it concerns the entire borough of Wembley and the adjacent borough of Willesden. For this reason I verbally acquainted the two hon. Members for Willesden, East (Mr. Orbach) and Willesden, West (Mr. Viant), in the hope that they might have been present, but no doubt they realise that I shall have nothing to say adverse to their honourable borough and they have left it to me. The subject also has a wider interest, in that the principle concerns local government authorities generally.

Briefly, the question is whether the borough of Willesden should have a cemetery in the borough of Wembley. In this respect the local councils of these two boroughs have been at variance in the past few years, but the matter has now reached a stage where Willesden are about to begin the construction of their cemetery. Though I have no desire to take a great deal of time in following the various steps taken by the two local authorities since Willesden purchased the land in Kingsbury, Wembley, in 1929, it is necessary to indicate how we have arrived at the present position.

In 1929, as an urban district council, Willesden purchased 49.8 acres of land at Kingsbury for cemetery purposes, in spite of the objection of the then Kingsbury Urban District Council. Following a local inquiry the then Minister of Health gave sanction, on certain conditions, for a site of 27 acres to be zoned for cemetery purposes. This was done under the Wembley (Kingsbury) planning scheme. It is important to note that at this time the only house near the site was the reservoir cottage.

In making the Order the Minister indicated that, as the cemetery site was not to be used for some years, he considered that in due course it would be necessary for the Willesden Council to give fresh notice under the Public Health Acts. There is no evidence that these notices have ever been given.

In 1932 Willesden sold 14 acres of the site to Kingsbury, and this today forms part of the Welsh Harp open space. A year later sanction was given for the fencing of the site, and this was erected in 1934, the year that the Kingsbury local authority was absorbed by Wembley. No further action was taken by Willesden to develop the site before the war and, although during the war sanction was given for works to enable the ground to be used for the burial of any civilian war dead, the site was never, in fact, so used.

In 1947, Wembley, now a borough council, considered the possibility of this land's being re-zoned for open space purposes. The planning consultant of the former Central Middlesex Planning Committee, reported as follows: The value of the Welsh Harp and its environs as a possible regional open space has already been emphasised to the committee. It therefore amounts to balancing the regional value of the land as open space against the urgent need of the Willesden Borough as regards disposal of the dead. Later the same day the Joint Committee commented: The Joint Committee supports the views of the planning consultant that this land should be shown upon the draft development plans as being land reserved for open space purposes and should not be used for cemetery purposes. At this time Wembley offered to share with the borough of Willesden the facilities that Wembley themselves were obtaining in an adjacent county, because Wembley had gone out into the county of Hertfordshire. Without prejudice, members of Willesden Council went out to Carpenders Park in Hertfordshire and looked at the site obtained for Wembley. They then reported, among other things, that the distance was too far. But the distance is about nine miles from the borough of Willesden to the Carpenders Park site in Hertfordshire which Wembley are to use for their own cemetery purposes.

When it was apparent that Willesden intended to go ahead with the cemetery in Wembley, Wembley protested to the Ministry of Health and pointed out that as the original provisions of the Wembley (Kingsbury) planning scheme had lapsed because of the operation of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, new planning consent would be required. Willesden therefore made representations again and, despite the protests of Wembley, the Ministry gave planning authority in August, 1950, for a reduced cemetery site of 13 acres.

Since the original purchase by Willesden in 1929, over 200 houses have been built in the vicinity of Birchen Grove, in Wells Drive, Leith Close and Dors Close and other streets, and the new cemetery site would immediately adjoin these houses. The residents of Birchen Grove and district therefore formed a protection committee. As a result of a petition and other representations, a public local inquiry was held into Willesden's application for consent to a loan of £30,660 for cemetery works. Wembley residents at this inquiry invoked the provisions of Section 10 of the Cemeteries Clauses Act. 1847, which provides that a cemetery shall not be constructed within 100 yards of residential property without the consent of the owners and occupiers. If the area within 100 yards were excluded, about five acres of land would remain for cemetery purposes.

The Minister subsequently approved the Willesden proposals in principle, and though I led a deputation from the Birchen Grove Protection Committee to interview the then Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend's predecessor, Wembley received no satisfaction. Wembley and the Protection Committee now threatened legal action in the High Court if Willesden proceeded with their proposals as outlined at the loan sanction inquiry. Once again Wembley repeated the offer previously made that Willesden should share with them the Carpenders Park cemetery site in Hertfordshire.

Though Willesden have not dropped their scheme they have certainly made a concession. They have revised their scheme and reduced their proposed area to about three acres of the site and outside the 100 yards distance from the houses. This may be a generous gesture and it may be an admittance by implication of the strength of the arguments put forward by Wembley, but the residents are still opposed, because if this cemetery is constructed they will be affected by the comings and goings of funeral processions.

That is the position today, and I believe that Willesden have the necessary Ministerial approval for the spending of £20,000 on the construction of a cemetery of about three acres in extent. It may be possible for extension to be made to five acres, but I am anxious to obtain the Minister's assurance that there could not be extension beyond this limit without new planning consent and owners' consent. It occurs to me that the expenditure of £20,000 for three acres seems uneconomical, and that Willesden would be well advised to think again and take up Wembley's offer of a shared cemetery in Hertfordshire.

There are many reasons why this area near the Welsh Harp and Birchen Grove should be preserved as an open space. Both Wembley and Willesden are entirely surrounded by urban development, and there is a grave deficiency of parks and open spaces in Willesden. In September, 1949, the Education Officer for Willesden asked the Wembley Council for assistance in the provision of playing fields for Willesden school children, as her existing facilities were overloaded. Recently, Willesden reported to the Middlesex County Council that it is the worst served authority in the county for open spaces, per head of the population. Wembley is anxious that this site at the Welsh Harp should be incorporated into the proposed regional open space, and should be allocated for public recreation.

It recognises that a cemetery there will seriously injure the amenities of the district. The Wembley Council has for years required cemetery space for it own people, but it has gone into Hertfordshire. It still invites Willesden to join her there and to share facilities. If this offer were accepted, it would allow the Birchen Grove site to be included in the regional scheme for the development of the Welsh Harp. The boroughs of Wembley, Willesden and Hendon will then share a magnificent playground centred upon a fine lake and surrounded by an area of land providing extensive facilities for all forms of sport and recreation.

It is not too late to realise this more valuable scheme. In granting a cemetery site here, the Ministry appears to have acted in direct conflict with its declared policy, that new cemeteries for the London area should be sited outside the urban area. Wembley has been directed to Hertfordshire, in accordance with Ministry policy, while the Ministry at the same time permits Willesden to plan a cemetery in Wembley flanked by some hundreds of houses. There are about 500 houses within 200 yards of the site, and 250 within 100 yards.

From a town planning point of view, it is obvious that when sanction was originally given, more than 20 years ago, the position was entirely different from what obtains today. There were no houses then, and there was not the serious deficiency in open spaces. So many open spaces are required today by these local authorities. In view of these considerations, and as no construction of the cemetery has been started, I ask the Minister again to look at this matter. Willesden certainly needs a cemetery, but let her join with Wembley, whose offer remains open. If that is done, we shall retain this valuable open space in the Welsh Harp area not only for the residents of Wembley and Hendon, but of Willesden as well.

11.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) has made his case persuasively for his constituents. He has been moderate in his tone and skilful in his manner; but I am not quite sure whether he has given the House all the facts of the history of the case, which would show that it has been gone into carefully and methodically. For the convenience of the House and of my hon. and gallant Friend I might perhaps go into the earlier history of this cemetery.

Although we may want open spaces, especially those of us who are young enough to enjoy them, it is necessary to have some areas in a town where one can dispose of the remains of the dead. In 1929 the Willesden Borough Council acquired a site of 50 acres on the north side of the Welsh Harp; and 22 acres—called Birchen Grove—were set aside for cemetery purposes. The then Minister of Health held a public local inquiry into the desirability of the construction of a cemetery on that site. There was some slight local opposition, but it was not prolonged, as there were scarcely any buildings in the immediate neighbourhood at that time.

In 1932 the Willesden Council sold to Kingsbury about 14 acres adjacent to the site, for an open space. Soon after the purchase of the site Willesden declared their intention of developing the open space as a cemetery. There were hardly any houses built at the time. About the middle 1930s, when house-building got into its stride—as we hope that it will again in the next few years—quite a number of houses began to be erected in the area.

In 1933 the Willesden Council got loan consent for the layout works—sewerage, water mains and fencing for the cemetery. They started the preparatory work in 1933 and there was no objection from the residents in that area. The cemetery went to the area first and the residents went there afterwards. It is important that the hon. Gentleman should get that particular point correctly. It was not as if the residents went there first and the cemetery were being imposed upon them. The cemetery was actually commenced long before the residents arrived.

In 1934 the new Wembley borough took over the Kingsbury urban district. In 1938 the Birchen Grove site was scheduled for cemetery purposes in the Wembley (Kingsbury) planning scheme. Nothing happened until 1948, when the Willesden Council announced their intention of completing and using the cemetery. This came as a shock to the local residents—and I can sympathise with their feelings, because when one has lived for a number of years in an area it is not pleasant to know that a series of funeral processions will pass one's front door. I have every sympathy with my hon. and gallant Friend in the particular distress caused to his constituents. The residents were out to stop it, and the Wembley Borough Council have ably assisted them in this struggle from the beginning. Now they are being reinforced by my hon. and gallant Friend, who has so skilfully deployed the case against the cemetery.

Let us look at the immediate history of the past few years. Wembley Borough Council made a tremendous attack. The 1938 scheduling of the cemetery was nullified by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and there were two attempts to get the Middlesex County Council—the new planning authority—to alter the future use of the land. That was in about 1950, and in that same year Willesden's application for planning permission to lay out the site was heard on appeal by the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, and the land approved to be laid out as a cemetery was reduced from 221 acres to 13 acres.

So the original purpose was 50 acres, of which the cemetery was to occupy just over 22, and then that area was reduced by the energetic and not unskilful efforts of Wembley Borough Council to 13. So it was quite a tactical, if not a strategic, gain for Wembley.

The opinion expressed by the Minister at the time was that a lawn-type cemetery, suitably screened from houses and nearby public open spaces, could be constructed without doing any harm. I have seen this particular land. When I went rather a long way round on my way to see the Cup Final recently I passed this area and I noticed it; but I never thought that I should be asked to answer in an Adjournment debate about a cemetery in that district.

Towards the end of 1950, Willesden applied to the Minister of Health for loan sanction. Wembley further objected and a public local inquiry was held. Wembley residents, according to my information, turned up in large numbers. At this public inquiry, the Wembley residents rested their case on the legal ground that Section 10 of the Cemeteries Clauses Act, 1847, applied in this particular case. That Section says: No part of a cemetery shall be constructed nearer to any dwelling house than 100 yards, except with consent in writing of the owner, lessee or occupier of such house. Wembley residents, ably and skilfully led, contended that no part of the cemetery had been yet constructed and that these consents still had to be obtained. The Minister of that time approved in principle Willesden's application for loan sanction, in May, 1951. He approved it on the ground that in the absence of case law, it was impossible to decide definitely one way or the other on the legal interpretation placed upon Section 10 by Wembley. The Minister of the day thought the Willesden Council were within their legal rights in laying-out the cemetery. He did so because some of the works had been done in 1934, which did constitute construction of part of a cemetery, and because, legally, householders, having acquiesced so long, were time-barred from objecting.

In August, 1951, my predecessor as Parliamentary Secretary to the then Ministry of Local Government and Planning saw my hon. and gallant Friend and a delegation. I think it was made clear that Wembley's objections would stand or fall on purely legal grounds. If we devote ourselves to the arguments Wembley adduced at that time, we may get some idea whether they would be successful if they tried to upset the present arrangement. If Wembley are right and Willesden have no right to build a cemetery in this particular part, and if Wembley rest their case on legal grounds, surely the way for Wembley to proceed would be to obtain an injunction in the courts to restrain Willesden.

Only the courts can give a legal interpretation. It cannot be done in this House. The House makes laws but does not interpret individual cases. Because of this particular action by Wembley, in invoking this Act, Willesden reduced, even further, the area they were to make into a cemetery to six acres. Although they obtained 50 acres originally, the amount to be used for a cemetery was about six acres.

Wing Commander Bullus

Is that the final word? Will there be nothing more than six acres?

Mr. Marples

The present application by Willesden is to build on six acres and what my right hon. Friend is concerned with is whether these six acres are a right and proper area for Willesden to use as a cemetery. It seems to my right hon. Friend that it is, taking into account the history of the case, and the decision of his predecessor. Any further application must be treated on its merits. If Willesden wanted to increase the area by a quarter of an acre, it would have to be considered on its merits. If they wanted to build on another 20 acres that would be considered on its merits, and it seems to me that that might be considered excessive. However, whatever they do in the future is hypothetical.

Wing Commander Bullus

Would it rest on fresh planning authority?

Mr. Marples

Nothing would be done unless it was approved under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, in conjunction with the Cemeteries Clauses Act, which Wembley Borough Council invoked.

The next point which my hon. and gallant Friend raised was that it is bad planning to have a cemetery at Birchen Grove. Surely the answer is that that aspect of the matter was exhaustively considered after the hearing in 1950 by the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, who decided that there could be no planning objection to the lay-out of 13 well-concealed acres. Willesden Council are now only building on six acres—that is, half what the then Minister approved.

With all respect to my hon. and gallant Friend, I would say that when any Government comes into power it takes over a going concern. It has to take over the situation as it finds it, and it cannot reverse everything decided by its predecessor. If the predecessor of my right hon. Friend decided that it was right and proper for Willesden to build on 13 acres, and now they are going to build on six acres, it seems highly improbable that there are grounds for interfering at this stage, when they propose to build en less than half the area which they originally had in mind.

The next point which my hon. and gallant Friend made was that the residents have a legal right of objection because their consent was not obtained. I should like to keep off the legal complexities of this matter because the short, final and, I think, conclusive answer is that no part of the works with which we are concerned—that is the works on six acres—is within 100 yards of the residents. No one has a right to object, and no consents need be obtained.

I have gone carefully into the matter, of which my hon. and gallant Friend was kind enough to notify me in advance, and the Minister was advised that Willesden have a legal right to do what they propose, and accordingly he cannot refuse to consent, or deny them their rights at law. If my hon. and gallant Friend wants to deny any local authority their right he will have to alter the law and not merely interpret it because, administratively, it would be inconvenient to do so.

My hon. and gallant Friend's third point was that Wembley offered Willesden a share in their own cemetery at Carpenders Park as an alternative. At first sight, that seems attractive, but Willesden refused it. Frankly, they had every right to refuse it on the ground that it would involve too much extra expense and trouble to their ratepayers to go there. If Willesden do not want to accept that offer my right hon. Friend has no powers to take over the functions of the local authority and force them to accept.

My hon. and gallant Friend considers that Wembley have had fair play all along. The cemetery has been reduced from 22½ acres to six acres, which is quite a fair achievement. The cemetery will be well concealed; it will be of the modern type—what is known as the lawn type—and can be made to look attractive, as opposed to some of the older cemeteries which are unkempt and a distressing sight, especially if one passes one of them late at night. The modern type is not unsightly, and it seems clear that Willesden have not only every legal right to carry out their plans but an urgent duty to their ratepayers to provide for their needs.

Willesden is a very overcrowded area and must have a ground reasonably near the actual area in which its inhabitants live. It is not a very wealthy area, and it is difficult for the people to raise the necessary funds to go out as far as Carpenders Park—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Five Minutes past Twelve o'Clock, a.m.