HC Deb 16 December 2003 vol 415 cc1546-52 7.15 pm
Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds. North-East)(Lab)

My debate tonight deals with one of the last great taboos of modern society—death. However, I do not intend to be morbid or depressing tonight. Instead, I want to look at one of the most visionary ideas, which translates into a service that has helped many people already in my constituency, and offers hope, joy and comfort at the most difficult time of any person's life— the moment they lose someone close to them.

A year ago, I received a letter from a constituent, Mrs. Daphne Hubery, whose husband, George, had died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 77. He was cared for in the last few days of his life at the wonderful St. Gemma's hospice in my constituency, and after his death, his wife, Daphne, picked up a leaflet at the hospice about "green burials". Not knowing anything about the subject, she telephoned the name on the leaflet—John Bradfield—and so began her involvement in one of the most innovative public service projects that I have ever come across.

The Prime Minister said a few years ago that social pioneers could deliver modern public service under a new Labour Government, so John Bradfield, a qualified social worker living in Harrogate, took up the challenge, which, in his words aims to

create new mechanisms to ensure that modern services are delivered in the new millennium. The phrase "green burial" has been around for a while. Indeed, the late George Harrison chose to be buried in that way. I shall go on to explain what the phrase actually means, but John Bradfield wrote the definitive book on it, entitled "Green Burial: the do-it-yourself guide to law and practice".

Daphne Hubery did not want the traditional funeral service for her husband George. She spoke to John Bradfield and went to visit Gertrude's Pasture, in Scotton near Harrogate, just a few miles north of their Leeds home. She fell in love with that wildlife and nature reserve and decided that it was where George should be buried, and that she, her friends and family would dig the grave and perform the funeral themselves.

The funeral service took place in the chapel of rest at St. Gemma's hospice. Daphne and George's children and four young grandchildren came to this celebration of George's life. Daphne told me that arranging the funeral without undertakers made her "feel empowered". She said that for her grandchildren the service she organized took away the fear of death". Gertrude's Pasture is a three-and-a-half acre site in the beautiful countryside in Scotton, near Knaresborough and Harrogate—about 15 miles north of Leeds. It is one of the few sites in the country where a type of beetle known as the "May bug" proliferates during, unsurprisingly, the month of May. It attracts the rare noctule bat, a protected species that has a wing span of up to 14 in, making it the largest form of British bat.

Gertrude Martin donated that land as a nature reserve in 1989 to the Alice Barker Welfare and Wildlife Trust, one of whose trustees is John Bradfield. The trust's registered office is in Harrogate. After her death, Gertrude gave her cottage to the trust as well, so that people could stay there for respite and enjoy the nature reserve itself. The land also accommodates the great crested newt, another protected species, which uses some of the grave structures to nest in. Placing permission was given by Harrogate borough council for use as a burial ground for up to 50 graves in 1995.

Once the 50 plots were used up, the trust applied for further planning permission. Unfortunately, however, this time it ran into resistance from the planning authority, which is Harrogate borough council.

Last Tuesday, 9 December, councillors from Harrogate heard the application for the site to be used for up to 1,000 more green burials, which would mean that it had a long-term future as a green burial ground. In spite of a carefully written report and application, permission was refused, mainly on the grounds that the authority could not control the frequency of burials on that site, and that permission for 1,000 graves might have meant that there would be up to "20 burials a day", resulting in traffic chaos. That is highly unlikely, given the average of one burial a month over the past four years, and the projection in the application of an average of one per week.

According to the report in last Friday's Yorkshire Post, Harrogate planning officer Neville Watson told councillors that expansion of the site for 1,000 burials, would have a adverse effect on the character and appearance of the area". Moreover, committee chairman Councillor John Smith told the newspaper:

If the area was used for burials at the present rate, the expanded burial ground could be open for up to 500 years. That is a slight contrast to the claim of 20 burials a day.

Councillors were also worried, as I have mentioned, about the traffic implications, even though the site currently generates very little traffic indeed. It seems strange that traffic did not figure in the discussions in relation to an industrial estate on the other side of the village of Scotton. I am told that highways officers raised no objections to that application.

I am very concerned that this project could now come to an end because of the hostile and highly conservative attitudes of local elected councillors, who have failed to see the wider benefits of a public service that does so much to help the bereaved and their families cope with the death of a loved one. I shall certainly support the trust in its appeal against this narrow-minded, bureaucratic and ill-thought-out decision.

I turn now to the wider aspects of this matter: the work of the Welfare and Wildlife Trust, Gertrude's Pasture, and John Bradfield himself. I have said that I consider him a visionary in an area of work that is little discussed and on which there is little public policy. However, it is something that we will all go through at some time or other during our lifetimes. John is a strong believer in the new Labour philosophy of "joined-up Government"—a phrase coined by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). He believes that people are "ambushed by death", and that hospitals never prepare families for the anguish and emotional pain of bereavement.

What the trust has done is to show how joined-up thinking in public services can be possible. Not only is a loved one buried in a beautiful place that is a wildlife reserve, but bereavement counselling can take place as part of the process of digging the grave and organising the funeral. I am not trying to put funeral directors out of business. There will always be plenty of work for them, but what I have seen and what constituents have told me convinces me that this is an idea that really works. However, it finds obstacles to its continuation at every turn, be they bureaucratic, unimaginative or just plain obstructive.

When Sue Thorp's husband Mike died of cancer in 1995, she was able to start grieving immediately, knowing that he had seen Gertrude's Pasture and had even decided where on the site he wanted to be buried. She gained huge comfort from knowing that they had made the decision jointly, and that their daughter Jessica. who was then just two and a half years old, has since visited the grave on many occasions—even decorating it with thyme plants and encouraging the great crested newts to nest there.

I visited the site in February this year, and was greatly impressed by the way it was managed and the tranquillity that it offered. What I saw, even in that bleak month, was a beautiful piece of Yorkshire countryside where the dead really could rest in peace and where the pain of death for surviving families could be ameliorated by the care and understanding offered by John Bradfield and the trust.

I decided then to take up the campaign, on behalf of many of my constituents, even though the site is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). She is aware that I am taking up the issue and holding this debate tonight. As I have said. the trust's registered office is in Harrogate, and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) fully supports what I am saying this evening.

When I walked around Gertrude's Pasture last February I came across the grave of Linda Biran, an active member of my constituency Labour party until cancer struck her down in April 2000. Her grave was marked like all the others with a flat stone on the ground. I knew that she had wanted a green burial and here she was. Her husband, Dr. Len Biran, fully supports the work of the trust and has spoken to me today to offer his encouragement.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, in his response to the debate, will be able to offer hope to the many citizens of this country—including many of my constituents—who are not people of faith and who might choose the option of a green burial when their time comes. It will mean co-ordination between Departments responsible for planning and health, the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Although this debate is specifically about the planning issues, I hope that he will feel able to pass on to colleagues in those Departments the message that if joined-up government is to mean anything, it should mean the encouragement of visionary services such as Gertrude's Pasture, not their discouragement by over-bureaucratic local planning authorities for what appear to be spurious reasons.

Given the fact that there will be an appeal, I know that the Minister cannot comment on the specifics of this application, but I hope that he will feel able to consider a planning policy guideline that will give support to such services. Unfortunately, like taxes, death is a part of life from which there is no escape. People like John Bradfield have shown us how we can cope with the death of those we love. I hope that our Government will listen to what he has to say.

7.27 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) on securing this debate. He is the only Member who has ever raised the issue of green burials with my Department, and I have, therefore, listened with singular interest to the matters that he has highlighted in the debate. He spoke eloquently, even movingly, and made a strong case for a more joined-up approach across Departments and public services on the matter. I will certainly reflect on the case that he made.

I believe that it would be helpful if I were to contribute to the debate by setting out the current planning position regarding green burials. Although burial principally occurs in purpose-designed cemeteries or churchyards, there are some exceptions. Families with large estates have routinely built a mausoleum or similar building on their land, for the burial of family members. Historically, it has doubtless been the case that some individuals have been buried in farmland and others in gardens, but the practice has not been widely noticed.

More recently, such burials have received a degree of media attention and it is believed that numbers have increased. Some of that has been due to the promotional activities of the Natural Death Centre, a charity formed to support a less formalised routine for funerals, as well as a more positive approach to death in general. It provides advice on green burials.

Those who opt for a green burial feel there are significant advantages to that form of burial. They argue that it allows them to organise a very personal funeral, in which they maintain total control. It is also argued that there are financial and environmental benefits from the practice. However, the complexities of carrying out a green burial may also be significant, although those vary according to the location. First, it is essential that permission to complete a burial be obtained if the landowner of the ground is not directly involved in the planning of the funeral. Secondly, any individual or mortgage company that has an interest in the property needs also to be notified. Thirdly, it should be borne in mind that access to the grave may be denied or restricted by change of ownership.

Most locations for such so-called green burials fall into two categories: on farmland and in a garden. Farmland locations are rarely overlooked and so will not offend neighbours or the public at large. The gravesite should be on land with a deep water table and be sufficient distance from watercourses so as not to pose a pollution threat. Electrical or other services must obviously be avoided.

With regard to planning permissions on such sites, a limited number of burials over a period of time may not constitute a change of use and no planning approval would thus be necessary. Recent local authority certificates of lawfulness have decided that planning permission is not required for the non-commercial burial on private land of a limited number of family members, friends or other members of a household. However, it has to be said that those decisions have not so far been tested in the courts. Exceeding a "limited number" of burials may require planning approval for use as a cemetery or for mixed use if farming is also to continue.

Safety in the excavation of the grave is a further consideration, as is the requirement to leave a sufficient depth of soil—3 ft—over the body. If it is intended to fence or mark the grave with a memorial, planning permission may be required. In effect, a single burial in a farm situation can proceed without an approach to, or the approval of, any council or other official organisation.

Garden burials, however, are complicated by the proximity of neighbours who may object to a burial in their close vicinity and may be offended by the sight of a coffin or body. There may be legal issues and there are, of course, issues of relationships but otherwise the considerations that apply to farm burials are broadly similar. The particular difficulty in garden locations is the likely reduction of the property value owing to the presence of a grave, or even the deterrent value of the presence of a grave to any sale at all.

Two major concerns influence that choice of burial. The first is the possibility of a future exhumation and burial elsewhere; there are legal means, in other words a restrictive covenant, whereby it may be possible to ensure that the grave remains untouched but they would involve costs and other uncertainties. Secondly, it is clearly the case that details of the burial will not be officially recorded, as they would be in a cemetery. None the less, it appears that there is a statutory requirement for the landowner to maintain a register of burials, even if only in the form of a note, preferably showing the location, in the event that the grave is disturbed by building or excavation works at some stage in the future. The Home Office recommends that it be lodged with the deed of the property. In addition, a certificate for burial issued by a coroner or registrar of births and deaths must be obtained and returned to the registrar by the person arranging the burial.

I now turn to the circumstances in which planning regulations come into force: the locations where more than a limited number of private non-commercial burials are occurring or proposed. Cemeteries and graveyards, except those ancillary to a church, and burial grounds, including green burial sites, are classified under the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 as sui generis. Accordingly, any change of use would require planning permission.

Although a single burial or a limited number of burials over a period of time may not constitute a change of use requiring planning approval, exceeding the limited number of burials may require planning approval for change of use to a cemetery or burial ground. In such circumstances, local authorities have the responsibility of deciding what uses the land may be put to and assessing the potential impact of that development. That is done through the local plan-making process and planning applications will be decided in accordance with such plans.

Although it may be argued that woodland or green burials would have little impact on the countryside, it is for the local planning authority to determine where a change of use has occurred or will occur and whether to grant planning permission. Of course, the local planning authority will treat each application on its merits, on a case-by-case basis. Members of the public have an opportunity to contribute their views once an application has been registered, and the local planning authority has a duty to publicise the application.

When a planning application for development relating to the use of land as a cemetery is received, the local planning authority also has to consult the Environment Agency and to take into account any informal advice it proffers. The agency's concern would be the possible environmental consequences for underlying aquifers and for nearby watercourses, springs and boreholes. The granting of permission for development should be consistent with agricultural, countryside, environmental, greenbelt and other national planning policy guidance, unless there are material and compelling planning reasons to do otherwise.

Let me conclude by saying that I have been aware of the situation regarding the burial ground at Gertrude's Pasture in Scotton, Harrogate, and I understand that it has a complicated history. However, since, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, this matter is now likely to be subject to appeal, he will understand that in my quasi-judicial capacity as a Planning Minister I am unable to comment further. I am sincerely grateful to him for raising these interesting issues, and I leave him with the assurance that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister continues to keep these matters under review.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eight o'clock

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