Controversial plans for gravestones

GRIEVING relatives will have to cough up repair bills on gravestones or have their treasured memorial shrunk down in size, under controversial plans outlined last night.

GRIEVING relatives will have to cough up repair bills on gravestones or have their treasured memorial shrunk down in size, under controversial plans outlined last night.

Councillors voted against paying for any memorial repairs - estimated at £700,000 - just months after a review of gravestones found that ten per cent in the St Edmundsbury borough were unsafe.

And the majority of councillors last night agreed to offer no help to people on benefits in paying for repair costs which could affect hundreds of residents, many frail and elderly.

Instead, where deed-holders will not pay or cannot be traced, they recommended sinking unsafe gravestones into the ground and reducing them in height by two thirds.

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The decision - which still needs to be rubber-stamped by cabinet members of St Edmundsbury Borough Council - were strongly criticised by community leaders.

West Suffolk MP Richard Spring, who met with disgruntled residents over the issue, described the situation as a “massive own goal” for the council.

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“This has been the most wholly unnecessary exercise which has caused more grief and upset than anything I can ever remember,” Conservative Mr Spring said.

“Where there are specific unsafe headstones, then of course action should be taken but this should be very few and far between and in full consultation with affected families and with great sensitivity.

“The way it has taken place has been hugely upsetting and I think the council should publicly apologise and to make it plain that this won't ever happen again.”

Bury St Edmunds resident, Raymond Yates, said he was horrified to discover his parents-in-laws' graves had failed safety tests leaving him with a bill of almost £200.

“The whole matter has been very upsetting,” Mr Yates said. “I think the decision by the council is going to be very worrying for those who can't afford the repairs.

“The council jumped the gun originally and should have informed us before the work was carried out.”

Speaking at the meeting, Sarah Paintin, of Haverhill funeral directors HJ Paintin , said the situation had caused a great deal of distress among residents who did not understand why the tests took place.

She added: “It has taken a lot of time to talk to people and explain what happened. But once we have done that, they have calmed down and got some sense of perspective.

“But we do feel some form of notification from the council before the tests might have been useful.”

Jean English, the council's parks manager, admitted they had not contacted deed-holders prior to the tests as she said keeping up-to-date records of them was very difficult.

Members of the policy development committee last night outlined a series of recommendations, which will be discussed by the council's cabinet next month .

Prior to future tests, they agreed to hold open days in the future to raise awareness and greater links between the council and funeral directors - but stopped short of agreeing to contact every deed-holder.

They also agreed to give people affected eight weeks to contact them before action is taken on an unsafe gravestone, but described plans to pay for all repairs - estimated at £700,000 - as excessive.

Councillor David Ray said: “To pay this money would be totally irresponsible and it would also be unfair to ask council taxpayers.

“It is not our responsibility to repair memorials - we are just responsible in making them safe. We should not be spending large sums of money on repairs when it is other people's responsibility.”

After the meeting, Paul Farmer, portfolio holder with responsibility for cemeteries, said: “I am grateful to the cross-party policy development committee for their detailed and thorough discussion of this emotive issue.

“They have examined all the options and their recommendations have been made following much careful consideration of all the available information. The best way forward will now be considered by the Cabinet on May 3.”

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