The Scrutiny Support Officer submitted a covering report advising the Panel of its new scrutiny topic of Bereavement Services, as identified in its current work programme.
J Duffield, Public Health and Development Manager from the Councils department of Neighbourhoods and Communities had submitted a briefing paper on the topic, attached at Appendix 1, and was in attendance at the meeting to provide an overview of the Service and answer Members questions.
The Public Health and Development Manager advised that the Councils Bereavement Service carried out burials for Middlesbrough residents and cremations for Teesside residents. Teesside Crematorium at Acklam was the third busiest in the UK carrying out approximately 3,600 cremations per year. Around 350 burials were carried out each year and there were 125 acres of grounds for cemeteries and crematorium, maintained by the Councils Area Care Service. The cemeteries were located at Linthorpe Cemetery, North Ormesby/St Josephs Cemetery and Acklam Cemetery. It was highlighted that the 53 acre Linthorpe Cemetery was a designated Nature Reserve and held a Green Flag recognising good management of public open space.
It was noted that the Service worked closely with partners and stakeholders through the multi-agency Bereavement Services Forum, chaired by Councillor N Walker, providing a discussion platform for funeral directors, clergy and faith groups. The Service held the Gold standard for cremation and cemetery services under a national benchmarking scheme run by the Institute of Cemeteries and Crematoria Managers (ICCM) and was self-financing from income.
A recent staffing review saw the retirement of the Bereavement Services Manager and an appointment of a joint manager with the nearby Golf Centre was made, saving approximately £18,000.
The nearest crematoria to Teesside were located at Hartlepool, Darlington, York and Scarborough but it was highlighted that a new crematorium was under construction, by a private Company, at Yearby next to the main A174 highway, near Redcar. It was anticipated that the new crematorium would open in January 2014. It was difficult to predict the likely impact on Middlesbroughs crematorium and it was considered that impact would depend on several factors such as catchment area, differential in cremation fees, service quality, facilities and family preference. The business plan for the new Crematorium made provision for over 1,100 cremations annually.
The Panel was provided with information in relation to headstone safety and it was reported that between 2005 and 2008 all headstones in Middlesbrough were tested by mechanical means in accordance with health and safety guidance. The testing identified 3,000 unsafe headstones and funding was made available from the Councils capital programme to repair them to national standards, costing around £300,000. The safety policy required carrying out safety checks every five years, in accordance with national guidance. Testing was now carried out by hand rather than mechanically and details of the test were provided. It was noted that cemetery and cremation fees had been increased to create a £16,000 annual budget to repair headstones when the owner could not be traced. The latest round of testing was almost complete and it was expected around 135 headstones would fail the safety test. These would be repaired by the Council.
In response to a query it was confirmed that all new headstones must conform to the established safety criteria and were tested after 28 days. Any new headstones that failed the safety test within six years must be repaired by the stonemason and the Council would not allow any new headstones that would not guarantee this.
In terms of new developments, the Panel was advised that the Government planned to introduce legislation requiring local authorities to appoint a Medical Examiner, to be funded from a charge to the person registering the death. It was proposed that the Medical Examiner would be an experienced doctor, qualified to consultant level on the NHS pay scale. A national consultation paper was still awaited and the planned implementation date was October 2014. It was anticipated that the fee for a Medical Examiners certificate would be in the region of £150 to £170. The current Medical Referee fee for a cremation was £18.50. The Bereavement Services Forum had expressed concern in relation to the proposals, particularly the impact of the new fee on low income households. It was estimated that the death certification process for cremations would increase by around £80 and around £160 for burials. In response to a query it was clarified that the Medical Examiner would examine the body after the death had been certified by a doctor. Referrals to the Coroner would be made by the Medical Examiner where appropriate.
Members were advised that TV screens were to be installed in the crematorium chapels. The new equipment would also allow families to have a recording of the funeral service, if they wished, on a DVD to professional standards. The equipment would also allow services to be broadcast outside the chapels on external screens for busy funerals and over the internet for family members who were unable to attend. The Bereavement Services Forum was supportive of the arrangements.
In relation to the impact of central government budget cuts on grounds maintenance of the cemeteries and crematorium, the Public Health and Development Manager advised that less work was being undertaken as less money was available for maintenance. Priority was given to cemetery/crematorium grounds maintenance and fees had been increased to appoint additional gardeners as the Bereavement Services Forum opted for higher fees to protect grounds maintenance standards. This process would be kept under review.
The Panel was provided with information in relation to mercury abatement. Mercury was a toxic global pollutant capable of entering the food chain and attacking the nervous system, brain and lungs. Government legislation was introduced to meet an EU Directive to reduce mercury emissions from crematoria. As a whole, UK crematoria were required to reduce mercury emissions by 50%. Middlesbrough Council opted to replace three of its five cremators and install mercury abatement equipment. This was a sophisticated process requiring additional space, therefore, building adaptations were required as part of a £1.6 million refit. Middlesbroughs crematorium was currently achieving a mercury abatement rate of 67%, well above the legal standard.
Members were informed that a review on the future provision of burial land was carried out in 2012. As a result, 1.4 acres of land adjacent to Thorntree RC Cemetery and 10.7 acres of land at the rear of Acklam Cemetery was designated for cemetery extensions. This meant that Middlesbrough had identified future burial provision for the next 50 years.
Reference was made to grave maintenance and it was highlighted that plots were once sold in perpetuity, with the Council responsible for maintenance. In recent years, grave plots were sold with a 100 year exclusive right of burial which effectively was a 100 year lease. Lawn graves were maintained by the Council, however, kerbstone graves were the responsibility of the owner. Annual contracts between the owner and Council were available and there were currently around 220. The Council maintained these kerbstone graves with maintenance contracts at a cost of £25 to £50.
In response to a query in relation to woodland burials, the Public Health and Development Manager advised that there was a woodland burial area at Acklam Cemetery, however, all plots had been sold due to people buying in advance. The main woodland burial area was located at Linthorpe Cemetery and there was approximately 20 years provision based on the current rate of sale.
The Chair thanked the Officer for attending and for the information provided.
The Panel discussed how it wished to proceed with the current topic and Members suggested that representatives from another local authority that operated a crematorium alongside a private crematorium (possibly Durham) be invited to a future meeting. Such an authority could be asked to advise on the impact of the private crematorium and on how their authority had responded to government budget cuts in relation to Bereavement Services.
Reference was also made to the next topic for investigation on the Panels Work Programme which had been identified as Middlesbrough Environment City and its role and involvement with the Council.
AGREED as follows:-
1. That the information provided in relation to Bereavement Services be noted.
2. That an Officer from Durham County Council be invited to a future Panel meeting to provide information in relation to its crematorium operation and Durhams Bereavement Service.
3. That an Officer from Middlesbroughs Environment City be invited to a future Panel meeting to provide an overview of the organisations role and involvement with the Council.