Wednesday 22 April 2009

Brian Coleman and The Angel of Death

Older readers will recall the sale of three cemeteries by Westminster Council in 1987 for the grand sum of 15p - only to buy them back five years later for £4.2 million.

Having increased child burial charges by 6.25% earlier this year, Brian Coleman now proposes to effectively privatise Hendon Cemetery & Crematorium. Could this turn out to be yet another expensive mistake at the taxpayers’ expense?

According to the report being considered by the Cabinet Resources Committee tomorrow night, the council proposes to
“enter into a partnership contract for external investment in, and operation of, the crematorium and cemetery and the maintenance of redundant cemeteries in order to enhance and protect the future operation of the service.”
Read further into the report and the reason for giving up responsibility for the cemetery becomes clearer:
If the Council continues to manage and run the service in-house, it will need to make investment in the site, including mercury abatement equipment by 2012, and in the medium term to the gatehouse, the costs of which are estimated to be in the region of £1.5m.
You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that if a private company has to splash out £1.5 million on improvement works, they will have to recoup the money somehow, and the only way to do that is by increasing burial fees and charges, or cutting back on tending the grounds.

Now at this point, I must declare an interest. A very close friend of mine died last year and is buried at Hendon. The idea that the grounds will be maintained by a for-profit company makes me sick to my stomach.

Whilst I believe in the free market and a small state, I also believe that there are some services which should not be operated on a commercial basis, and this is one of them. Barnet Council, however, sees cemeteries as a way of making money. According to the report:
“…the aim is to retain a significant financial return for the Council whilst reducing the risks on income and cost.”
Making money out of the dead and the bereaved is about as low as you can get.

The proposals in the report were developed by Sector Projects, a company owned by Capita Group - or Crapita as it is known to Private Eye readers. Sector give the following reason to justify their recommendation:
“The management of the whole business by a private operator provides the best way forward for the service as it is likely to be managed by an organisation that understands the service better than the council…”
This cemetery has been in operation since 1899. What the council doesn’t know about operating it, isn’t worth knowing.

Taxpayers have paid for consultants to produce a report about a very sensitive matter yet we are not being consulted for our views. But, then again, since when did Brian Coleman ever care what the public thinks?


mike dawson said...

barnet council (hello dominic, trust you have got this referral) is considering outsourcing jobs. looks like this is another example of this process.

the council's justification of cost-saving is the recommendation from Capita that:

“The management of the whole business by a private operator provides the best way forward for the service as IT IS LIKELY TO BE MANAGED BY by an organisation that understands the service better than the council…”

i'm afraid "...LIKELY TO BE..." just isn't good enough.

your comments re a new private company not having the experience of the Council, 100+ years, is correct. this case of outsourcing is clearly flawed and should be referred to the Audit Commission.

AdamJacobson said...


Is this some kind of sick joke on Coleman's part? PPP/PFI is a moribund idea from the 90s and the only winners then were, guess who, the private sector and the solicitors advising on the deals. To use one of my favourite expressions, the lawyers charged like the light brigade and will do so again now. The taxpayer gets no benefit whatsoever! The current scheme appears to be nothing different. Any claim that it is would, imho, be a semantic argument.

In this case, we are dealing with an extremely sensitive "asset" which the Tories would be well advised to keep under public management unless they want a kicking at the next election.

At a time when the Council has wasted valuable time retrieving assets from Iceland, surely they would be well advised not to do anything controversial with the cemetery?