Do landowners hold the solution to a grave crisis?

29 Oct 2019

farm gate

Around 623,000 people died in the UK in the year to mid 2018, the highest annual UK mortality since 2000. An estimated one quarter of those had opted for burial. Experts have regularly been warning that as the population grows, and as demand for land for housing increases, then ‘traditional’ space for burials will be squeezed.

This was highlighted in a survey of loal authorities in England and Wales, published in 2013 which estimated that half of them would run out of burial space in 20 years, one quarter would be full by 2023, and some anticipated no remaining space for burials within just five years, which by now has presumably happened.

A number of solutions have been proposed. In London, for example, the law permits reusing graves involving disinterring remains, deepening the grave, re-burying the remains and then placing another body above. In one London cemetery the ground height has been raised by 8ft to allow a second ‘storey’ of burials to be made possible. Other proposals have included using land at the sides of motorways and railway lines, and brownfield sites.

The solution, in part, may lie in the countryside, where estates and farms, looking for alternative development opportunities or different revenue streams to farming, renewables, tourism and other land-based activities, can provide sympathetic and attractive sites and options for housing the dead, or their remains. These have included woodland, memorial walls and gardens and even modern burial mounds, or barrows.

Martyn Dobinson, a partner at Saffery Champness and a member of the firm’s Landed Estates & Rural Business Group, says:

“A number of our clients and other estates are looking at, or have already diversified into, woodland burial sites, or other alternatives.

“They either invest in these development opportunities themselves or let land to a specialist developer/operator who will fit with their other business objectives.

“There are clear advantages of such diversification, not least the fact that there will always be a demand. Other benefits potentially include securing Business Property relief (BPR) on the land for inheritance tax purposes, dependent on how the new business is structured, and investment benefitting from the current raised annual investment allowance for capital allowances on qualifying plant and machinery.

“With the subsidy regime set to change, and with a focus on delivery of environmental benefits, such developments could fit well within the parameters of the new environmental land management schemes, whilst complementing farming and other estate activities.

“Michael Gove announced the government’s new Urban Tree Challenge Fund earlier this year, with a plan to provide £10 million of funding to meet a target 130,000 new trees in urban areas to counter climate change. The planting of memorial trees could play a major part in achieving that target.”

At Strathspey Estates in the Scottish Highlands, is the Delliefure Burial Ground. Lying within the Cairngorms National Park, overlooking the March Pool on a bend in the river Spey, famous for its salmon fishing, this is an idyllic spot to lay a loved one to rest.

The website reads: “Osprey fly overhead, while golden eagle hunt the wild uplands; otters swim in the river, red deer and roe deer blend into the woodland, pine martin and red squirrel inhabit the ancient pines. This place really is very special.”

Will Anderson, Chief Executive of Seafield & Strathspey Estates says:

“We saw the potential in this area over 10 years ago and teamed up with Leedam Natural Heritage for its delivery. Their business model, to keep things simple, natural and beautiful, appealed to us because the location within the National Park is an integral part of the estate.

“Leedam carried out all the professional work to set up the burial ground and fully manage operations. The scheme’s minimal environmental impact had the advantage of minimising shared investment costs. The agricultural style of maintenance fits with the landscape of the estate and the whole project has low overheads and is very low risk. We maintain ownership and overall control of the land and receive an annual income based upon the sale of plots.”

At Knowsley Estate on Merseyside, 71 acres of woodland plantation were at the heart of a £1.5 million investment by GreenAcres Woodland Burials. Their investment was based not only around restoring and enhancing the biodiversity of two existing woodland plantations, but also providing an alternative to traditional facilities, and creating jobs.

Simon Waller of Knowsley Estate comments:

“We took the decision in 2014, after detailed discussions with GreenAcres, following their initial approach in 2012, to develop a woodland burial park on the estate. This is a good example of estate diversification in the greenbelt on land that had limited hope value for the future so fitted with the estate strategy at the time.”

Martyn Dobinson concludes:

“Creative solutions for where we can respectfully lay our loved ones to rest and in an environmentally friendly manner are developing across the countryside. There are dedicated developers and operators who can take these solutions forward in ways that not only provide a service but also capture the public’s imagination.

“What has hit the headlines as a grave crisis is providing a serious business opportunity for farms and estates. It is another area where our clients have the resource to provide a solution to what is a problem that is not going to go away.”