Council leader says secrecy over crematorium for East Cambridgeshire prevented rival operators from muscling in and scuppering their proposals
PUBLISHED: 18:12 18 August 2020
Council leader Anna Bailey revealed that a crematorium in East Cambridgeshire was proposed three years ago but removed from public gaze to stop rival operators getting wind of it.
The world of crematorium operators is, it seems, ruthless.
“We had the ambition to deliver a crematorium in our corporate plan in 2017,” said Cllr Bailey.
Where in East Cambridgeshire was not defined “but we put that in the corporate plan and we began work on investigating one in the district”.
She said “We received expert external advice that if you do this in public your chances of delivering it go down to nothing; if we do it in public then national operators rapidly put forward rival proposals (very successfully sometimes) to stop that happening.
“We needed to get to a relatively advanced stage so we shortened the time to prevent handing it on a plate to rival operators”.
She repeated that “we would have preferred” not to have gone public quite yet on the proposals because external advice offered precedents where similar schemes around the county have been scuppered by rival operators working quickly to deliver alternative sites.
“We were told the crematorium industry is notorious for behaving like this,” she said. “We were given examples of where it has happened. We took advice. We took it off the corporate plan.”
I asked Cllr Bailey if the public would have known by now of the future plans for Mepal had not the Ely Standard got wind of it?
“You can take a view of when the time was right, and everyone would have come to a different date,” she said. “What we were trying to do was to de-risk the project.”
Emphasising again the rivalry within the crematorium industry she said operators “are able to work quickly and comprehensively to put in proposals and completely scupper all the effort we have put in and the chances of delivery”.
There was nothing wrong with the council trying to shorten the period before a planning application was submitted.
Those plans will most likely be submitted later in the year.
It is still “very early stages of the process” but despite this she felt calling a special council meeting to unveil the business plan was the right time and the right move.
“We took a deliberate decision knowing we have a lot of work to do understanding the site,” she said.
“We wanted all members to be privy to information so we called a special meeting to allow all councillors to input into that decision.
“We didn’t have to have a decision in July – we believed it was time for all members to know.”
She is still “very disappointed” about social media posts about the council planning to also run a pet crematorium.
“It was never the case and it set a whole load of hares running,” she said.
I responded by reminding her of the imperfect – and occasionally imprecise – nature of leaks to the media.
However, of the need for a crematorium in East Cambs she is adamant.
“I think it is absolutely wrong people in east Cambs have to travel long distances to say goodbye to their loved ones,” she said. Madingley was a “terrible journey” and lacked venues nearby for relatives to gather. And King’s Lynn, she felt, was again too far.
“We had this ambition to deliver something in East Cambs” she said.
The crematorium proposals for Mepal, though by no means a ‘done deal’, will almost certainly go ahead if planning consent is given,
Cllr Bailey says it will not be at the expense of other leisure investments, pointing out that the council delivered The Hive and other “significant investment”. Examples quoted included Ely country park and Viva arts centre in Soham.
John Hill, chief executive, added that “we are not portraying ourselves as someone putting leisure on the back burner.
“We are very proud of what we have done.”
Cllr Bailey said the crematorium was excluded from their election manifesto “for reasons I have explained. But we had an ambition to investigate and see if we could bring a crematorium into the district”.
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On Mepal she believes “it can be broadly be a country park; it’s got to work with bio diversity with some important wildlife and part of our climate change strategy to make more room for nature”.
So for three years East Cambridgeshire District Council has been secretly working on plans for a crematorium – but Cllr Bailey, remains adamant that Mepal only came into the reckoning recently.
That possibility emerged only after an exhaustive and extensive attempt to find a buyer for the centre failed.
“We moved heaven and earth to retain it as a leisure centre,” said Cllr Bailey.
“The leader of the opposition was informed and was part of the process of dismissing that as an option.
“We went through an extensive tender process to look at all options including its existing use and a broad range of outdoor activities.
“We actually went through the tender process twice and we were very excited, on the second go, to find an operator that would have seen it retained; we moved forward on that basis.”
However, the successful bidder undertook further site investigations and became aware that significantly more capital investment was needed. Cllr Bailey said the successful bidder also cited the downturn in the leisure industry generally as an additional challenge.
The council was “unbelievably disappointed” when the contract fell through.
“Maybe we should have articulated it more at the time,” she said.
Cllr Bailey said the decision not to pursue the contract was known to the finance and assets committee.
Until the arson attack in 2016 she said the Mepal centre was mainly used by schools
“The sad thing is that not enough people were using it, and those that were for only for part of the year,” she said.
“I went there when I was a kid as did many others – that is until they spent all day playing on their phone and computer.”
It is unlikely the council would likely commission something like Mepal again “without pouring a lot of money into it. The numbers were never really there; it always had financial difficulties”.
Cllr Bailey believes even with a crematorium at Mepal there are opportunities to retain some recreational activities on the site.
“If we have not emphasised that enough that’s because we are very early on in this process,” she said.
What became clear during my interview with Cllr Bailey and chief executive John Hill is retention of Mepal Outdoor Centre as it once was is not part of their agenda.
Arson attacks and anti-social behaviour have blighted the centre and new studies have ecological and bio diversity issues that need addressing.
Using Mepal as the site for a crematorium, pet cemetery and woodland burial ground only came about once its future as an outdoor leisure centre was ruled out.
As chief executive John Hill is responsible for implementing decisions of the council, and defends the secrecy that surrounded both the crematorium and the outdoor centre.
“We accept we were late off the starting blocks because of confidentiality issues,” he says and accepts the challenge of getting the message across for what is now proposed.
Going forward he said the council “wants a fair hearing; we genuinely believe we are doing the right thing and we are not arrogant to believe everything is perfect”.
Mr Hill said his aim would be to ensure people recognise that the council “has done its very best”.
The centre was an asset of the council and its value will decline if nothing happens there.
“And it doesn’t look too good on the A142,” he said.
Cllr Bailey is emphatic that as a “pure leisure outlet” the council has exhausted all possibilities.
But she has been encouraged by those coming forward to suggest leisure pursuits that will fit in with council’s ambitions for Mepal, suggestions that range from a nature reserve to fishing on the lakes.
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