HL Deb 17 June 1991 vol 530 cc24-34

3.57 p.m.

Lord Morris

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I wish to stress to the House that this is not a Private Member's Bill; it is a Private Bill. The Bill is designed to do one thing and one thing alone, and that is to benefit the London Borough of Newham. Woodgrange Park Cemetery is an unconsecrated, privately owned and operated cemetery in East Ham, in the London Borough of Newham. Those of your Lordships who know it will be aware that it is in a serious state of dilapidation and disrepair and that it urgently needs a large amount of work done to it in order that it may once more become an asset to the local community, as opposed to an appalling eyesore.

Many people still visit the cemetery to tend the graves of their families. I hope that everyone will welcome an attempt to maintain it to a high standard. The owner of the cemetery is a private company, Badgehurst Ltd., a privately run company based in Essex. It assumed responsibility for the cemetery in its current state in 1981. During the interim 10-year period the company has been actively engaged in discussions with the local planning authority—the London Borough of Newham—to try to agree a scheme of restoration. After this great length of time —some would consider it a monstrous length of time —the discussions have made significant progress and it is hoped that matters may soon be finalised.

The restoration plans may be divided into two parts. First, the company proposes to replace the disused Victorian chapel within the cemetery with a crematorium which will provide a much needed service for the local community, especially for Hindus whose religious requirements for cremation currently mean that families travel many miles, even as far as Darlington, for the cremation of family members. The proposed crematorium has been designed by the architects John Pardey and Ronald Yee. Two weeks ago it was selected as one of 150 projects from among 4,000 applicants for display at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. It was granted outline planning consent by the London Borough of Newham in August of last year.

As well as a crematorium there are plans for extensive gardens of remembrance, including a columbarium, and the rest of the cemetery will be landscaped to a high-quality design, with roads re-surfaced and lighting installed. That will provide much-needed burial spaces for the community and accommodate the special needs of the Moslem population, who do not accept cremation. The owners will they £500,000 into a trust fund so that the future maintenance of the cemetery can be assured.

All those works will naturally be costly. Therefore, the second part of the refurbishment plans involves the sale of a disused portion of the cemetery for much-needed housing in the area. That will then provide the necessary finance for the cemetery works to proceed. The London Borough of Newham has resolved to grant outline planning consent for that development subject to the satisfactory completion of a legal agreement between the borough and the owners of the cemetery.

I now turn to the question of why those plans require an Act of Parliament. It is because the provisions of two pieces of public legislation would, unless specifically disapplied to the current circumstances, render the proposed development and renovation plans unlawful. It is worth recording that Clause 8 of the Bill specifically ensures that the Bill itself will not grant planning permission for the scheme. The promoters are totally in agreement with the concept that such matters should continue to be dealt with by the local planning authority.

The Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884 provides, quite rightly in my view, in Section 3 that it: shall not be lawful to erect any buildings upon any disused burial ground, except for the purpose of enlarging a church, chapel, meeting house, or other places of worship". As general public law that must be correct. However, that provision would prevent the proposed housing development from taking place. The Bill therefore provides that it should be disapplied. Without that development the cemetery would remain the appalling eyesore that it is today. Various modifications and except ions to the section have on many occasions been enacted in public and private legislation, most recently by the Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981. However, the modifications of that Act are of no assistance to those who wish to see this Bill go forward.

The other provision of public legislation which the Bill specifically disapplies is Section 5 of the Cremation Act 1902. In particular, that provides that no crematorium shall be constructed nearer than 200 yards to any private dwelling except with the consent of the owner. That restriction has been relaxed on numerous occasions by private local Acts of Parliament. In particular, the London County Council (General Powers) Act 1935 provides in Section 64 that Section 5 of' the Cremation Act 1902 shall in its application to a London borough council be modified so as, among other things, not to apply to the construction of a crematorium situated more than 100 yards away from any dwelling. In other words, as usual, it is one law for a local authority and another for the rest of us. Unfortunately, as the promoters are not the local borough council they cannot make use of that modification. That is why Clause 5 of the Bill has been included.

In its disapplication of those provisions the Bill is very well precedented. Numerous similar such Bills have been enacted in the past 30 to 40 years and this Bill is nothing new. That includes the provisions of Clause 6 relating to the removal of human remains, providing an alternative procedure for the exhumation of human remains to that under Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857. The Home Office approves of that procedure, and the promoters have agreed to amend Clause 6(1) so that all human remains will be removed from the scheduled land and reinterred elsewhere within the cemetery before development commences. In any event, from their records the promoters believe that the last burials in the scheduled lands took place many years ago—some 34 years ago—and it is widely believed that any such remains will have virtually decomposed by now.

A large number of petitions have been lodged against the Bill, and the considerable, and I may say commendable, efforts of the Friends of Woodgrange Cemetery to oppose it in that way should not go unnoticed. There are also petitions from the London Borough of Newham—which is bizarre—and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, although the promoters hope in due course to be able to satisfy their various anxieties. However, I suggest that this is not the place to examine the objections to the Bill in detail. That may, and should properly, be done in the Opposed Bill Select Committee in the event that your Lordships agree tonight that the Bill should be given its Second Reading.

I turn briefly to the instruction tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. I, and the promoters, welcome that. We believe that they will be able to demonstrate to the Select Committee beyond peradventure that the passing of the Bill is in the public interest, in the same way as the disapplication of the statutory provisions to which I have referred have been seen to be in the public interest on so many occasions in the past. It is only right that this Bill should be allowed to proceed to Committee so that its provisions can be examined in detail.

This is a good Bill which, if passed, will mean that the plans for renovation of the cemetery may finally proceed. I therefore commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Morris.)

4.8 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for taking the House through the Bill and explaining it in detail. I should also like to thank him for the eminently reasonable attitude which he has adopted towards the Bill and towards the opponents of the Bill.

Nobody would disagree with the noble Lord that Woodgrange cemetery is an appalling eyesore and that something needs to be done about it. Indeed, something should have been done about it after Badgehurst acquired ownership of the cemetery in 1981. Unfortunately, to date nothing has happened. But I and many others believe that the measures contained in the Bill are not the way to go about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, will realise, as he has mentioned, that the Bill and the actions proposed by it have proved deeply offensive to a great many people who will be adversely affected by it and to the relatives and friends of those who are buried in the Woodgrange cemetery. No fewer than 116 petitions have been lodged against the Bill—by the residents of Tenbury Close, the Friends of Woodgrange Cemetery, the Newham Borough Council and, last but by no means least, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I have also received a petition from other residents in the area which, although it has no official locus, indicates that there is considerable opposition to the measure apart from and in addition to that expressed in the Petitions which have a locus standi.

Furthermore, the Member of Parliament for Newham, North-East, Mr. Ron Leighton, has received a host of representations against the Bill. Representations have also been made to other Members on both sides of the House of Commons, including the Father of the House, Sir Bernard Braine, who has expressed his concern about the provisions of the Bill and especially in relation to the heartache which will be caused to people who have relatives buried in Woodgrange cemetery.

I have met Mr. Leighton together with representatives of Tenbury Close residents, the Friends of Woodgrange Cemetery, officers of Newham Borough Council and a representative of the War Graves Commission. It was as a result of that meeting, going through the Bill and its implications and hearing of the concerns of all those interested parties present that I agreed to oppose the Bill on Second Reading. I do so gladly because the promoters appear to have had scant regard, at least until now, for the interests and feelings of those adversely affected by it. Nor, so far as I can see—I hope that they will change—have the promoters, Badgehurst Ltd., gone out of their way to co-operate with the borough council in coming to arrangements that satisfy the council's own requirements as the properly elected authority and those private individuals whose interests would be affected.

Newham Borough Council agrees that the cemetery is in need of work to restore it to a fit and proper condition. I appreciate that the council is dissatisfied with the record of Badgehurst Ltd. which, after 10 years of ownership, far from improving the cemetery has let it slip into further dereliction. Like other petitioners, the borough council objects to the proposal for a crematorium; not only because it is unnecessary as the borough is well served by three crematoria which all currently operate below full capacity but because the proposed crematorium would be in close proximity to residential accommodation. In Clause 5(2) the Bill seeks to ride roughshod over the rights of owners and lessees by removing the protection afforded to them by Section 5 of the Cremation Act of 1902.

The residents of Tenbury Close and of other roads in the vicinity of Woodgrange have every reason to be worried about the building of a crematorium, the siting of which will be within 120 yards of houses in Tenbury Close. To give your Lordships some idea of what that distance means, it is about four times the length of the Chamber; so your Lordships will realise that the crematorium would be in close proximity to the houses.

The pollution from smells and other emissions from the crematorium will not only injuriously affect the environment and the well-being of residents but it is also bound to affect the value of their properties and make them difficult to sell. As the borough council owns residential property in the vicinity it, too, will be affected by a reduction in the value of property; so the public purse, as well as private individuals, is bound to be adversely affected. In addition, the crematorium will generate additional vehicular traffic which will have to use the shared access road through Tenbury Close, thus causing disturbance, nuisance and danger to residents. For all those reasons it is an effrontery that the Bill should propose the removal of all the rights and protection that Parliament has given to individual owners and lessees.

I now turn to other matters in the Bill. Paragraph 4 of the preamble states that the cemetery has not been used for the burial of human remains since 1946. However, evidence through historical aerial photographs and headstones on graves within the scheduled lands show that burials have taken place within the past 30 years. That constitutes a significant time difference as the numbers of the bereaved will be greater. The Friends of Woodgrange Cemetery have evidence which shows that burials have taken place in those lands since 1948—in 1969, 1976, 1981, 1982 and 1987—so some of the burials are very recent. I feel sure that Badgehurst will wish to re-examine its assertion that there have been no burials in the scheduled lands since 1948.

Furthermore, the proposal to construct housing on the scheduled lands would mean houses being built on land used for comparatively recent burials. Little wonder that anxiety has been expressed by the Friends of Woodgrange Cemetery about the rights of deed holders and the dignity of the dead. It rightly questions the demand for houses built over the remains of people buried in the cemetery in the not-too-distant past. To date there have been 20,000 burials in Woodgrange cemetery, which gives some idea of the scale of burials there. Clause 6 of the Bill is therefore insensitive and unnecessary and can only cause heartache to families involved with the cemetery. The proposal in Clause 6(11), to set aside the Burial Act of 1857, is offensive and has serious implications for public health and the proper removal of human remains.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is petitioning against the Bill because it is responsible for caring for the graves of officers and men of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force who fell in the First and Second World Wars. Within the scheduled lands referred to in the Bill there are some 100 war burials in common graves which the commission was not allowed to mark individually. The graves are therefore marked by a war memorial situated in the cemetery but outside the scheduled lands. Badgehurst Ltd. says that it no longer has adequate records and cannot say who is buried in any common grave, assuming that its position were known. In those circumstances, it does not seem possible for the remains of any specific war burial to be identified and removed to another cemetery for burial.

The commission therefore believes that the additional protocol to the Geneva Convention should be applied to the proposals in the Bill; namely, that disturbance of war graves should be allowed only where overriding public necessity can be shown. Certainly, in this case, such public necessity cannot be shown. As, in the view of Newham Borough Council, the cemetery is still needed for burials, including Moslem burials, it can be demonstrated that the Bill is against the public interest on that score alone, let alone the many other disadvantages connected with the Bill to which I referred.

The Bill should be withdrawn. To date the promoters have not put themselves out in any sense to meet the legitimate concerns of the petitioners. Their failure to conclude a Section 106 agreement with Newham Borough Council, which has tried to be as helpful as possible, is an indication of their determination to try to force their policy through regardless of the rights and interests of others.

In accordance with our conventions, the Bill will no doubt receive a Second Reading, which I shall not oppose. If it does, I shall move the Instruction that is set out on the Order Paper. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will not oppose that. I have already illustrated why I believe that Acts of Parliament should not be set aside as is proposed in the Bill. Suffice it for me simply to emphasise that. Acts of Parliament passed for the protection of people, their interests, decency, dignity and public health, should not be lightly set aside unless it can be shown that it is in the public interest so to do. I do not believe that the Bill illustrates that.

4.20 p m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as is normally the case on Private Bills, the Opposition do not take an official view and anything that I say on the Bill will be an expression of my personal opinion rather than the point of view of my colleagues.

It appears to me that two kinds of issues are involved in the Bill. First, there are the issues raised by the Instruction to be moved by my noble friend Lord Stoddart. Those are the questions relating to whether or not it is proper to override the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884, the Cremation Act of 1902, and the Burial Act of 1857.

I have listened with care both to what my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, said on this subject. Incidentally, I think that the noble Lord is wrong in saying that the London County Council (General Powers) Act 1935 created one law for local authorities and another for other people. As I understand it, the 1935 Act would apply to any crematorium within the London County Council area, and it does not apply in this case because the crematorium is not within the London County Council area. I do not believe that that criticism of local authorities is justified.

I also listened with care to my noble friend Lord Stoddart. He has a good case for the terms of the Instruction he is putting forward, and I hope that the Select Committee will take it seriously. But the issues are much wider than that; they concern the role of Private Bills in relation to planning conditions. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, in moving the Second Reading, said that considerable progress had been made towards reaching planning agreement. He cited the fact that the local authority had, he said, given outline consent for the crematorium. I do not believe so. I believe it said that it was minded to authorise its officers to give consent provided that a Section 106 agreement was satisfactorily concluded.

The noble Lord referred to the fact that the authority had given outline consent for the crematorium. Well, it could hardly avoid doing so. It had no grounds in planning law not to. But the fundamental consideration is whether the Cremation Act 1902 should be overridden. The noble Lord will know only too well that the council, in its capacity as owner of some of the houses within 200 yards of the proposed crematorium, proposes to object, and therefore that planning consent, which could not reasonably be withheld, cannot in fact be implemented.

I leave on one side the question of the financial issues that might arise. I note that negotiations have gone on for a considerable time between the owners and the council for the purchase of the cemetery by the council. I understand that the owners were looking for a payment of £4.6 million, whereas the council thought that the proper payment was £1. I draw attention to the contrast between the financial probity and wisdom of the Newham Borough Council as compared with the City of Westminster, which got rid of three cemeteries for 5p. each and is now having to make offers in excess of £1 million for them. I believe that noble Lords will know that it is our view that Labour councils generally are better protectors of public funds than Conservative councils.

However, leaving that on one side, this Bill, in addition to its attempts to overturn previous Acts of Parliament, is in effect an attempt to bypass planning permission. That is the most serious consideration for the Select Committee. The borough council, as is its duty under planning laws, is prepared to give outline permission for a crematorium and for housing on three of the 20 acres of the cemetery. But it is prepared to do so only if other laws are complied with and a Section 106 agreement is adhered to.

The most important point of a Section 106 agreement is that the money gained from developer's profits for the three acres of housing should be used in an agreed scheme of improvement of the cemetery. Since the noble Lord, Lord Morris, my noble friend and I are all agreed that the fundamental requirement is that the cemetery should be brought into proper use again, I cannot for the life of me see why there should be a Private Bill which in effect weakens the power of the local authority to impose a Section 106 agreement—because that is the view of the local authority and of its parliamentary agents.

The noble Lord who moved the Bill and the committee that will have to consider it should give serious consideration before agreeing to do anything that weakens the powers of the local planning authority to secure that building over part of a cemetery is carried out only when the proceeds are to be used to preserve the rest of the cemetery. I am reminded of the Irish senator who said that he was prepared to see not only a part of their glorious constitution but, if necessary, the whole of it abandoned in order to preserve the remainder. We are talking here of only three acres out of 20, but even so I hope that the committee concerned will feel that it should not allow parts of this Bill other than those that have already been objected to to go through without preserving the rights and duties of the planning authority.

4.26 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is traditional on Private Bills that the Government take a neutral stance and this Bill is no exception to the rule. The disposal of the dead is a subject that understandably arouses a great deal of concern. The Government have considered the contents of the Bill very carefully and have no objection in principle to the powers being sought by the promoters. Neither my department nor the Home Office has any outstanding points on the Bill. Our comments have been answered fully.

There are 116 Petitions against the Bill and the petitioners will have the opportunity of presenting their objections to the Select Committee. The committee will be in a very much better position than we are today to examine in detail the sensitive issues involved. I hope, therefore, that the Bill will be given a Second Reading and allowed to proceed in the usual conventional way to the Select Committee for this detailed examination.

4.28 p.m.

Lord Morris

My Lords, I am most grateful to the enormous number of noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on this important little Bill. May I first make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey—there is no reason why he should know the full history behind this, and I do not want to go into it at length—that the ownership of this private, unconsecrated burial ground came into the possession of the present company as a result of a part payment of a debt. The first thing in the world they want is to get rid of this turbulent priest.

They have been trying for years and years to get the London Borough of Newham to contribute something to the local amenity. I do not want to get political about this. The only way out that they could possibly see is this particular route. As I tried to say in my opening remarks in moving this Bill, I would remind the noble Lord that there are many precedents. I do not want to repeat what I said before and I cannot look it up because the Hansard staff, who obviously want to get home early tonight, have taken my notes from me. For the life of me I cannot remember precisely what I said but that is the gist of it.

This is not a new concept. It is not a new idea. The company is not trying to profit from digging up a graveyard or upsetting the local people. On the contrary it wants to restore the graveyard to its former glory. It was in an abominable state when the company was forced to take it over, and it is trying to do its best. I think it is grossly unfair to use this Chamber at Second Reading to make points that should properly be made in the opposed Bill Committee.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, will the noble Lord permit me to intervene? The noble Lord is now raising the issue of the procedure of this House. Unless we who consider the matter on the Floor of the Chamber make such observations as we think proper on the detail of the Bill, the Select Committee that has to deal with the Bill will not have the opportunity to consider all the points that might be made. I think it is wrong for the noble Lord to suggest that it is in any way unfair—he used the word "unfair" and not "improper"—for us to consider the Bill in such detail as we think fit on Second Reading.

Lord Morris

My Lords, I do not want to have an argument with the noble Lord about the procedures of the House. However, it is important to realise that Second Reading debates on private Bills are designed to consider the Bills more in their generality. Otherwise, why do we have a Select Committee procedure in the first place?

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, made an excellent speech, and demonstrated precisely why that Select Committee procedure has been in place for so many years. It is up to both public and private petitioners on a Bill to put their cases admirably to a Select Committee, which, after all, is made up of Members of your Lordships' House. I believe that to be the proper procedure. It would be wrong to argue the point further. I repeat my thanks to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and who have supported the Second Reading of the Bill. It should pass as quickly as possible to the Select Committee for consideration.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and referred to the Examiners.

4.30 p m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon rose to move, That it be an Instruction to the Select Committee to whom the Bill will be committed that it should not allow the Bill to proceed unless it is satisfied that it is in the public interest both to set aside the protection afforded to the public in this case by Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857 and Section 5 of the Cremation Act 1902 and to override the effect of the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-nine minutes before five o'clock.